Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), has been on trial for barely a week, but the jury has already convicted him of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl, both of whom Jeffs claims were his “spiritual wives.” Jeffs could face life in prison.
Earlier this week, the prosecution rested its case after playing a tape of Jeffs having sex with a 12-year-old church follower. Forensic evidence also presented nearly-certain proof that Jeffs was the father of a child born to a 15-year-old follower. Jeffs, after firing his lawyers, defended himself, saying that the issue was not sexual assault; rather, his religious freedoms were being “trampled” upon.
Turning the courtroom into a pulpit, while the jury was out of the room, Jeffs promised “a judgment against all those who prosecute the church.” He continued, “I shall let all people know of your unjust ways. I will bring sickness and death. Let this cease.”
The judge politely told Jeffs that if he continued to threaten the jury’s destruction in their presence, he would be removed from the courtroom.
In 2008, the federal government raided Jeffs’ “Yearning for Zion” ranch in Texas, and discovered several heavily pregnant underage girls. A number of other men were charged with sexual assault and bigamy as a result, and seven have been convicted.
The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon Church, and has existed as a separate entity since the Mormon Church renounced polygamy in the late nineteenth century. There are approximately 10,000 FLDS members, concentrated in two towns in Utah and northern Arizona. Their members practice polygamy, but Jeffs’ actions have been roundly condemned by other polygamist groups.
“It is especially devastating to discover that sexual assault of young children may have occurred behind the false pretense of a religious ideology,” said a statement from a coalition of five polygamist groups. “If any members of our communities are in fact guilty, we fully support their being brought to justice.”
The coalition, however, suggested that if polygamy were legal, it would be easier to prevent abuses like these from occurring. ”These reports of abuse illustrate the necessity of decriminalizing plural, consenting-adult relationships, while convicting those specific individuals who have victimized children,” the statement continued.
Earlier this summer, a polygamous family (who also happen to be reality TV stars) filed a lawsuit against Utah’s anti-bigamy law, saying that prohibiting polygamy is unconstitutional. It’s unclear whether the Lawrence v. Texas decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prosecute people for private, consensual sexual behavior (in that case, gay sex), will be deemed expansive enough to permit polygamy. Conservatives are certainly using the opportunity to declare the death knell of traditional (heterosexual) marriage, but as usual, the issue is far more complicated.
The problem with polygamy, for many women’s rights activists, is that it seldom goes both ways. Although there may be few cases as egregious as Jeffs’, the practice is deemed problematic because it often strips agency from women and children and concentrates power in the hands of one patriarchal figure. Having more fluid relationships is one thing (Dan Savage, among others, has been advocating for gay and straight couples to explore the realm of non-monogamy), but traditional polygamy does not make for good gender equity.
Jeffs may be an extreme example, and it’s good that after an overturned conviction, he will finally face punishment, but his actions do not provide good PR for the polygamist movement, FLDS or otherwise.
Photo from Randy Mankin via Wikimedia Commons.