Warren Jeffs, the spiritual head of a sect of the Fundamentalist Church
of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), was sentenced Tuesday to a life in prison for sexually assaulting girls as young as 12, whom he calls his wives.
The FLDS group, disavowed by the mainstream Mormon church, claims to be living God’s commandment of plural marriage and cites ties to Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s first prophet and founder.
From the Associated Press’ account of the trial:
Jeffs... evoked images of the civil rights movement and mentioned former Mormon leader Joseph Smith Jr. in his statement. He also asked the jury to remember constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
According to reports, Jeffs entered the Book of Mormon as evidence during the trial and referred to his rape of girls as young as 12 as “heavenly sessions.” Jeffs used his religious authority over his thousands of followers to commit crimes whose details are horrifying to read. Flora Jessup, who escaped an FLDS community before becoming an anti-polygamy activist, called Jeff’s conviction and sentencing “a long time coming.”
When crimes likes Jeffs’ are committed in the name of religion, American courts consider them punishable by law, regardless of the motivation. Claims of “religious freedom” need not apply in cases of abuse, officials say. That’s why Jeffs was convicted.
But what about consenting adults participating in polygamy? Should that be illegal, too?
Kody Brown and his four wives are members of a Apostolic United Brethren faith, a group also rejected by today’s Mormon Church, but one that claims its roots in Mormonism, too. The Browns are the stars of the TLC reality show Sister Wives, and recently filed suit in Utah to challenge that state’s anti-polygamy laws, which grants the state the power to prosecute consenting adult polygamists. From the New York Times’ report on the suit:
The lawsuit is not demanding that states recognize polygamous marriage. Instead, the lawsuit builds on a 2003 United States Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down state sodomy laws as unconstitutional intrusions on the “intimate conduct” of consenting adults. It will ask the federal courts to tell states that they cannot punish polygamists for their own “intimate conduct” so long as they are not breaking other laws, like those regarding child abuse, incest or seeking multiple marriage licenses.
In a New York Times op-ed, George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley, who is representing the Browns, called the anti-polygamy law “a clear example of unacceptable government intrusion.” Acknowledging examples of abuse such as Warren Jeffs, Turley added, “the government should prosecute abuse wherever it is found. But there is nothing uniquely abusive about consenting polygamous relationships.” Like gay couples who have worked for state recognition of their relationships, Turley writes, “[the Browns] want to be allowed to create a loving family according to the values of their faith.” And, Turley says, the Browns are far from alone:
Utah and eight other states make polygamy a crime, while 49 states have bigamy statutes that can be used to prosecute plural families. And they’re not a small population: the number of fundamentalist Mormon or Christian polygamists alone has been estimated to be as high as 50,000. When Muslim as well as nonreligious plural families are considered, the real number is likely many times greater.
Some argue that de-criminalizing polygamy could actually empower women in these closed communities: take the polygamists out of hiding and abuses see the light of day. Other feminists and anti-polygamy activists say that the power dynamics of plural marriages are inherently unfair to women and the state should not condone them.
Legal or not, plural marriage takes place all across America. Mormon writer Joanna Brooks, who authored last week’s popular 5 Myths on Mormonism for the Post’s Outlook section, had this take:
...The b-o-r-i-n-g world of Kody Brown and family may in fact be a tremendous blessing to the broader community of 40,000 plus Mormon fundamentalist polygamists, most of whom have been struggling to get out from under PR havoc wreaked by the exploits of monomaniacal FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and his now infamous exploits.
“We’re not the polygamists you think you know,” Kody Brown tells the camera as he sits at the wheel of his white Lexus.
Which is to say “we’re not child-marriage-arranging-lost-boy-exiling-prairie-dress-wearing people-who-allegedly-deserve-to have-their-children-taken-from-them-by-the-state-of-Texas.”
That’s what Sister Wives and its ad-salesman-protagonist are trying to sell: utter normalcy.