The case, arising from a raid beginning April 3 at the Yearning for Zion ranch in the small town of Eldorado, was the largest raid on a polygamist group in more than 50 years. All 462 children of the community have been placed in protective custody. The community is part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a separatist group that split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) over its practice of polygamy (mainstream Mormons rejected polygamy over a century ago).
A key issue is the charge that the wives in these polygamous marriages were under the consenting age of marriage (18). But it was an anonymous call supposedly from a child (who was never found) claiming she was being abused in the community that first led to the raid. The New York Times (May 8) reports that FLDS polygamous communities on the Arizona-Utah border (from which the Texas community was established in 2004) fear that they may be the next targets of a government crackdown, particularly since in the small world of polygamists they may have family ties to the men being convicted of having married under-aged wives. One leader with several wives in the Arizona-Utah area was found to have 21 wives in Texas, with an additional 35 children.
The fears of a “Texas-style police crackdown” in these Western states have led polygamists to show greater cooperation with authorities – although similar types of police intervention against other groups in Utah or Arizona is unlikely, since the memories of the traumatic Short Creek (Arizona) raid in 1953 are still alive and local authorities have no intent to repeat something similar. Other participants in plural marriage are speaking out publicly about their lifestyles, seeking to differentiate their forms of plural marriage from the alleged under-age marriages that were practiced by the community in Texas. The Dallas Morning News (May 8) reports that the prospect of life returning to this community, with once had 700 members, looks bleak. Emily Ramshaw writes that “Mothers have scattered across the state, moving into motels to be close to their children’s foster homes. Fathers have returned to the Utah-Arizona border where [the FLDS] is based, jittery that their other families will be targeted.” The relocation of many of the commune’s residents since the April raid has also made it difficult for state investigators to determine which parents belong to which children.
State officials maintain that their goal was not to destroy the FLDS’ way of life in Texas but only to ensure that its children were safe. For the sect leaders brought in from Utah to defend the ranch – a holy land chosen by leader Warren Jeffs in 2004 for his most fervent adherents – the crisis has triggered strong protests, saying what what has happened to Yearning For Zion is religious persecution, based on the “misconceptions” that their faith condones underage marriages and teen pregnancy. They claim that while there may be a few cases of both on the ranch, it is no more prevalent there than in any urban community in America.
Along with the breakup of the community, the 10,000 member FLDS is undergoing a leadership crisis. The head prophet Warren Jeffs’ rule over the church is said to be eroding, reports the Star-Telegram newspaper (May 4). Jeff has been in prison in Arizona awaiting trial and is now under suicide watch for starvation. He has lost contact with other leaders in the group since his arrest in 2006 for arranging a marriage for underage cousins in his community.
Richard Cimino is the founder and editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion. Since January 2008, Religion Watch is published by Religioscope Institute. Website: www.religionwatch.com.