Texas polygamy scandal creates controversy

By Tiffany Ayuda
On April 24, 2008

Recently, an unidentified 16-year-old girl from a ranch of members of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) in Eldorado, Texas (also known as "Yearning for Zion") made an anonymous call to a family violence shelter, reporting that her 50-year-old husband was sexually abusing her. As a result, 416 children were immediately separated from their parents and taken from their homes, placed under state custody. The Texas District Court announced Friday that the children are subject to DNA testing, which will help sort out family relationships, making this case the biggest and most complicated child custody case in America. Members of FLDS sect have come forward to the media to justify their lifestyle, deny allegations of underage girls marrying older men, as well as existing physical abuse, emphasizing their "God-given" right to keep their children. The FLDS is a breakaway sect from the mainstream Mormon Church, which does not associate with the Fundamentalist Church or recognize it. Some responses from the young women and wives of this Fundamentalist compound have made statements that ex-sect-members claim are false. Ex-sect-members claim that sexual and physical abuse and incest are rampant, that the men can have as many wives as they wish and girls as young as 14 or 16 can marry men who are twice, sometimes three times, their age.

For non-FLDS members, these stories are appalling, and something should be done immediately to end the oppression and abuse in these compounds. But does this individual case give us the right to intervene and take away all 416 children away from their parents? Maybe. If the children were raised in a household where abuse and the marriage of underage girls to older men is condoned, then the state does have a right to step in and address the issue. Utah Sen. Ron Allen criticizes polygamy and said, "Thousands of women are being pulled out of school, forced into marriages with older men and kept isolated from society while they are being constantly impregnated. They have become the forgotten citizens, facing fear and abuse."

However, the issue of religion complicates this problem. According to the FLDS, God, through his prophets, has affirmed the practice of plural marriage. This practice was stopped in 1890, when the Church's President Wilford Woodruff received a revelation from God that plural marriage was wrong, but it was resurrected in 1935 by Joseph White, John Y. Barlow and a group of other Mormon polygamists who were excommunicated from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Barlow was the group's first leader, and then Roulon T. Jeffs took over. But when Roulon died in 2002, his son, the infamous Warren Jeffs, became the prophet. Jeffs led a Fundamentalist compound in Colorado and was later convicted of felony sex charges and rape for arranging a "spiritual marriage" between a 14-year-old girl and a middle-aged man. According to a CNN report, there are approximately 30,000 people in America who practice polygamy. Today, polygamy is illegal in the United States, but there are certain state laws that permit these Fundamentalist compounds to exist because of their right to freedom of religion. The practice of polygamy in the United States has become a contentious issue as a growing number of people adopt the practice. Polygamy is also practiced in average, American households across the country, particularly in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Texas, where there is an especially high Mormon population. While the mainstream Mormon Church does not recognize the Fundamentalist church, many Mormons are sympathetic to them and the rest of the country should try to understand both perspectives, for plural marriages, abuse and rape are all the women and children of the FLDS have ever known. Even if the state takes full custody of the children and gives them to foster care, their transition to normal American society will not be easy. Still, is there a possibility for polygamy to become legal? While some may argue that polygamy allows rape and abuse to become "normal," there are polygamists who do not use abuse or tolerate rape, and are living plural marriages for the purpose of religion. If they are not breaking any laws and live peacefully in plural marriages, who are we to say that they can't? However, polygamy isn't for everyone, so legalizing it would not be practical. Polygamy is still a choice that many Americans make and wish to live openly, and they should not be labeled criminals.

Tiffany Ayuda is a senior print journalism major. You may e-mail her at tayuda1@pride.hofstra.edu.

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