washingtonpost.com
An Unusual Prosecution of a Way of Life
Texas Will Attempt to Show That Polygamist Culture Itself Harms Children

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

In 1953, for instance, a raid on a polygamist settlement on the Utah-Arizona border ended with wailing mothers, a public outcry and the return of dozens of seized children.

After that, observers say, the two states often tried their best to pretend that these groups didn't exist. The polygamists usually returned the favor. "It was sort of a mutual-consent abandonment," said Terry Goddard, the attorney general of Arizona.

But, in the past five years or so, Utah has made an unprecedented outreach to the groups, sending out bureaucrats to their settlements and making an implicit bargain with them about the law.

"We're not going to prosecute people solely for adult bigamy," said Paul Murphy of the Utah Attorney General's Office. But, he said, the state will look aggressively for other crimes, such as welfare fraud and sex with children. Arizona has made similar efforts, trying to target individual violations of the law, not entire communities.

"They definitely were trying to open lines of communication," said Sarah Barringer Gordon, a professor of history and law at the University of Pennsylvania. "And they would very much like to have these people become integrated into the society." Still, Gordon said, in many cases the groups have been wary.

The atmosphere of openness was reinforced by a 2003 Supreme Court decision invalidating laws against sodomy. At a distant point on the American social spectrum, polygamists saw another implication: The police would stay out of their bedrooms, as well.

But then, on April 3, there they were.

In the immediate sense, the raid may have happened because of a hoax. Telephone calls reporting abuse at the ranch have been linked to a woman in Colorado with an alleged history of false abuse complaints.

But both Texas and the polygamists had been courting a confrontation. Under "prophet" Warren Jeffs -- now in jail in Arizona -- the fundamentalist sect seemed to be ordering more underage marriages. And a West Texas representative sponsored a bill in 2005 that set new laws seemingly targeted at polygamists.

Here in Eldorado, the small town closest to the compound, residents still say they're glad the raid happened.

"It's not legal, and it's wrong, the way they were living," said Rosa Martinez, behind the counter at her Rosita's Casita restaurant.

But legal experts say the case could easily become a quagmire. They say Texas has an unusual burden: It has to prove not spankings or sexual abuse, but the dangers of an entire belief system.

"Can they say with a straight face that's in the best interest of these children, to be taken away from their parents?" asked Ken Driggs, a public defender in Georgia who has done extensive research on polygamy and the law. "Does government want to get in there and say, 'This is a good religion,' or 'This is not a good religion?' "

Kenneth Lanning, a retired FBI agent who worked on crimes against children, said courts are likely to order that at least some of the children be returned to their parents. But how should the state handle that, if it has said the parents are part of a poisonous culture?

"You don't want to put it back the way it was," Lanning said. "But how are you going to leave it?"

In Utah and Arizona, nonprofit groups and government officials say they've already heard from other polygamous groups, worried that the Texas case may signal an end to their own detente.

Here in West Texas, the remaining members of the Eldorado sect have a more immediate demand.

"We want our children to come home," said Dan, 24, after a hearing this past week at the courthouse in San Angelo, Tex. He declined to give his last name.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company