Different shades of gray
Each month the Sun Advocate presents two views of the same subject as columnists Terry Willis and Tom McCourt see it.
Yet again, Utah hits the national news in a very non-flattering way. The Hunt for polygamist Rulon Jeffs focuses the nation's attention on the issue of polygamy.
Is it a religious rights issue or one of breaking a civil law? I take the stand that if it was only a choice between consenting adults then it would be strictly a religious matter and not subject to be legislated by our courts.
If it were only that clear cut. The issue of multiple wives or, more rarely, multiple husbands is not really the problem. I agree with Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham that people live in unorthodox living arrangements all the time and those arrangements are not prosecuted.
So what is my issue with the current state of some of the high profile polygamist groups?
In an isolated community it becomes difficult to make choices that are outside of the norm in which you are being raised. That being said, how consenting can a 17 year old be when she is told that it is her time to wed? It may be legal in all sense of the law, but it is not a choice. It is surely not an option or legal when the girl is 14 when the choice is made for her to marry a 35 year old.
Statistics are difficult to obtain due to suspected fraud to get benefits, but it is estimated that the rate of plural wives receiving public assistance is close to 50 percent. The US Census Bureau reported in 1997 that every child living in the polygamist community of Hilldale was living in poverty. Medicaid pays out one third of its funds to cover maternity costs and authorities estimate that plural wives are using over half of the benefits being paid out. Polygamist Tom Green acknowledges 30 children that are his. The mothers had applied for public assistance under false pretenses, stating they did not know who the father was.
Because it is easier to control people who are isolated, some communities control and limit education opportunities. The FLDS community has limited members from obtaining a higher education since 1997. The isolation leads to marriages that involve cousins, sisters, and children. This practice has led to increases in birth defects and genetic problems within the groups. Children born into the practice did not have a choice and must live with the resulting medical complications that go along with it.
Living in poverty and not getting a college degree are not grounds to be against a belief system. Fraud, child incest and abuse are. There are women who report being happy in these arrangements. But you have to wonder how many are miserable and not able to make the choice to leave. It is difficult to pack up 10 children and seek a new life when you are being spied on by your sister wives. It is also difficult to leave when you are locked onto a warehouse lot and live in a shack, while your husband lives in a $200,000 home in the foothills of Salt Lake.
We have the Kingston clan with roots in our community. I don't know if these unlawful practices are taking place here in Carbon and Emery counties, but the track records of the Kingston organization make me worry. I don't want big brother government looking into my bedroom activities. But many of these problems have been flaunted in our faces for years. I think that our state government has a bit of cold feet syndrome because they don't want another raid on Short Creek incident.
I do not advocate raiding communities and taking away children, but we need to prosecute benefit fraud, incest, child rape and child abuse vigorously in every community. That is not a religious issue. Some way must be found to quit turning our backs to the real problems that are associated with polygamist practices.
Until you can find a way to deal with the issues that have plagued polygamy through the years, it should remain illegal.
Let me begin by saying that I am not in any way affiliated with the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saint (FLDS) church. I have one wife and one family and that's plenty for me. The church I belong to hasn't practiced polygamy since 1890. Having said that, I feel compelled to defend the fundamentalist position.
It is my belief that placing the FLDS prophet, Warren Jeffs, on the FBI's 10 most wanted list is nothing short of political grandstanding and a de-facto warrant for his execution. The feds have put the man in the same company with terrorists and mass murderers. He doesn't deserve to be there.
Jeffs is facing charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, sexual conduct with a minor (a plural wife), conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor, and accessory to rape (performing a plural marriage where the bride was under the legal age of consent). Those are serious charges, but not worthy of the FBI's ten most wanted. Osama Bin Laden and the Unabomber also made the top 10.
I believe Jeffs is being persecuted for his religious beliefs in the same way David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were persecuted and killed for their religious beliefs. There too, one of the charges was child abuse. Our society has little tolerance for people who demonstrate "weird" religious beliefs. The state department and the FBI are far too eager to put religious zealots at the top of the watch list, above thousands of "ordinary" child predators, pornographers, and pimps. Why is that?
Child abuse is a serious charge, but arranging plural marriages between teen-aged girls and older men, both members of the same religious order and followers of the same traditions, isn't in the same league as teen-aged prostitution or the child sex and pornography trade that flourishes in parts of the United States. Arranged marriages have been a part of many cultures for thousands of years and continues to this day.
The charge of welfare cheating is another issue. I hate the fact that some polygamists use our welfare system to support second and third families. But then again, I equally resent the many thousands of illegal aliens who are on the public dole. If we are going to clean up the social welfare mess, let's clean up the whole thing and not pick specific groups as targets.
And then, to count polygamy as a legal moral issue in this age of shack-up and gay partnerships is laughable. At least fundamental polygamists make sacred vows and commitments to one another.
The charge that Jeffs isolates his followers from the outside world is perfectly true and not illegal. Some people I know try to isolate their children from the evils of this world with special schools and gated communities. I sympathize with their efforts. In that same vein, the children of Colorado City were withdrawn from public school but they are being taught at home. It's an option legally available to any parent.
So it all comes back to the child abuse charge. Is it child abuse to arrange the marriage of a teen-ager? Is it child rape for a 35 year-old man to marry a 16 or 17-year old girl? It does sound strange today, but it was not unusual until after World War II. It is true that the world is different now, but the word "fundamental," as used in the context of the FLDS church, refers to deep-seated and long-held beliefs. Teen-aged brides and plural marriage have been a part of that religious tradition since the 1840s.
A peaceful solution must be found before something stupid and tragic happens. It is possible, even likely, that Jeffs will choose martyrdom over humiliation in court. It is sad that our government has put him in that situation. His crimes do not warrant such dramatic action and the FBI has a poor track record in these matters. You will recall that at Waco, Janet Reno and the FBI killed 23 Branch Davidian children in a misguided effort to save them from alleged child abuse.