The Story Behind the Story of Polygamy in the West

According to the New York Times front page story today, the Texas raid on the FLDS compound in Eldorado, Texas, “rattles other polygamists.”

Marci Hamilton

Apparently, FLDS members outside Texas are poring over the documents retrieved by the state to learn the whereabouts of their own relatives (including the location of men who have one large polygamous family, say in Arizona, and another in Texas!). The church elders obviously do not feel it is necessary to keep members abreast of where they have directed each individual to live. I won’t be the first to note the extraordinary amount of mental control the FLDS leaders exert over their followers.

The real story behind the New York Times report, though, is the appalling and widespread failure to enforce the anti-polygamy laws. A woman is pictured with the caption, “Polygamy is not the problem.” Well, actually, polygamy would be a legal problem but for the prosecutors who have chosen to make it a dead letter on their own. The Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, of Utah is so busy working with polygamist groups, he apparently does not have time to read the law books, or perhaps he just does not care about the rule of law. He, especially, cannot ignore the anti-polygamy laws, because it is a condition for Utah’s statehood in plain language in Utah’s constitution.

He and other enforcement officials in the west persist in arguing that the only approach they can take is to prosecute one man at a time, which has done next to nothing to protect the children in these compounds. Is that really how they approach the prosecution of dangerous gangs and drug cartels? This is a willful decision to ignore the mounting evidence in Texas that the compound housed a conspiracy of adults that furthered widespread child rape, sex abuse, and physical abuse. When a community has decided to separate itself from society, lives in shared barracks, dresses identically, brazenly ignores marriage laws, doesn’t bother to get birth certificates, shares religious beliefs in favor of illegal behavior, lies to authorities repeatedly about the identities and ages of their children, and then authorities find mounting evidence of illegal actions against children that mirror those religious beliefs, authorities do not have to pretend they have never seen a criminal conspiracy before.

Let’s hope other polygamists are rattled because their illegal behavior has now become front page news. If they want to engage in polygamy, they need to lobby their state legislators who make marriage laws, just as homosexuals advocating gay marriage are having to do in each state. It would be healthy to have a public debate on policy regarding both. Until then, the law is crystal clear, especially in Utah.

Law enforcement officials who are not enforcing the polygamy laws have become the handmaiden of religious licentiousness, not liberty. By throwing away a singularly useful legal tool that could give them important leverage to stop the child abuse in these compounds, they have chosen quite publicly to abandon the side of the angels.

Marci Hamilton is a law professor and the author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008).


One Response

  1. For comments from a different side of the controversy, people may want to look at my blog, which has had fairly extensive discussion of the FLDS case. While it isn’t clear whether or not the FLDS are bad guys, it is entirely clear that the Texas authorities are. For example:

    A spokeswoman for the child protective agency testified that she had spoken to several girls who knew the girl who made the initial phone call. We now know that the initial phone call was made by a 33 year old woman in Colorado with no connection to the FLDS outside of her own imagination, and a past conviction for bogus phone calls.

    The Texas authorities have dropped their arrest warrant for the man who the caller claimed was her abusive husband, have stated that the woman in Colorado is a person of interest in the case, have conceded that one of the calls was made from a phone she had used–but have not yet actually come out and admitted that the phone call that set off the raid was bogus and it is known who made it, information that appeared in the London Times several weeks ago, and many other places since.

    That leaves them, as a basis for the raid, with what they say they were told by their unnamed confidential informant. They have never actually said that the informant was, or ever had been, present in the ranch, and there seems some reason to believe that she is a woman who left the FLDS fifteen or twenty years ago.

    The authorities have made repeated statements about how many girls of what ages are mothers or pregnant. Curiously enough, they do not mention in these statements that they have refused to accept birth certificates as proof of age, hence that all their age figures represent their guess at the girl’s age, hence that every statement of the form “so many girls of such and such an age range are mothers” is a deliberate lie–a statement asserting information that the authorities do not have.

    The authorities tried to argue that the FLDS was guilty of physical child abuse on the basis of the number minors who have had broken bones, presumably as a way of explaining why evidence about sex with minor girls justified the seizure of all minors, including male infants. They dropped that argument when it was pointed out that the number as a fraction of the total number of minors in custody–about ten percent–was lower than average.

    For more details see the relevant posts at:

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