An Unusual Prosecution of a Way of Life
Sunday, April 27, 2008
ELDORADO, Tex. -- The ironic thing is that before the big sheriff's department armored personnel carrier appeared outside the Yearning for Zion Ranch, it was starting to seem as though America had finally figured out how to live with its polygamists.
For more than a century, authorities had alternately persecuted and ignored the groups practicing plural marriage around the West -- splinters from mainstream Mormonism, splinters of splinters. Mostly, they ignored them.
But, in the past few years, officials in some states have begun trying to bring these groups out of the shadows. They offered a deal: Marry however often you want, but don't marry children. A Supreme Court case on gay sex also provided unlikely help.
Then came Eldorado.
On April 3, Texas authorities raided the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' compound here, then removed more than 450 children. Now, Texas seems headed for exactly the kind of wrenching, head-on fight that other states have tried to avoid.
Their case will ask: Does this polygamous group deserve a place -- and the right to raise children -- in modern society?
"The people in Utah and Arizona simply aren't doing it" this way, said James W. Paulsen, a professor and expert on polygamy at South Texas College of Law in Houston. "The idea of walking in and shutting down the entire group hasn't been tried in more than 50 years. And the last time it was, then it was an abject failure."
Things have quieted down now in West Texas, more than three weeks after law enforcement officers raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch. The sect's children have been scattered to foster care around the state while officials use DNA tests to trace family relationships.
Now comes a legal fight with a twist. The state will argue that the sect's children are at risk at the compound, but not because every one of them has been physically or sexually abused.
Instead, they will say that the culture of the church, which encouraged girls to marry and bear children in their early teens, was a danger to any child immersed in it.
"There was a pervasive belief that children having children was what they were supposed to do," said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
To those who study polygamist cultures, the crackdown seems like something out of the distant past. Something that, in the past, had reliably backfired.