Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Story Behind the Story of Polygamy in the West

Marci A. Hamilton

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

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.

About The Author

Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty (2007) and Justice Denied: What America Must Do To Protect Its Children (2008). She is one...

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