Yearning for Zion
On a secluded ranch deep in the rural expanse of western Texas, over five hundred people have lived for years in an environment choked by ideological indoctrination and autocratic control of access to the outside world. An all-encompassing climate of fear and blind obedience in this remote dystopia made it possible for a small group of men in the community to preside over the women as they see fit, raping underage girls, sometimes from their own families, with abandon. This, at least, is the story as presented by the Texas government following raids upon the ranch, and the story which is suggested by many accounts of life in similar compounds throughout the west. The blinkered worldview which ranch leaders imposed upon their subjects, and the sexual crimes which they apparently inflicted, are not--according to the owners of the ranch--merely the caprices of depraved human beings. On the contrary: they were commanded by God Himself.
It is this wrinkle in the story which has made the Yearning for Zion Ranch a center of national controversy. At this point evidence against the leaders of the ranch is legally inadmissible, but imposing, and the case would remain sickening even if just half the tales being told about the ranch's horrors are true. At least fifteen of thirty-five teenage girls rescued from the ranch either were pregnant or had already given birth to children, including one who had her baby after the raid took place. Some of the children, clad in modest, spare fashions from over a century ago, have told the press that "no age was too young to be married," although marriage was in fact called "spiritual unity." Oddly, in the 14-17 age group there many more girls than boys. The gradual shift from a 50-50 gender split at birth to a ratio of almost four girls for every boy at age 18 was a clear trend in the Yearning for Zion population. It is still unknown why this is the case, although similar cult-like groups in rural Utah have been known to simply throw their teenage boys out onto the streets.
The leaders of Yearning for Zion--all white men--were practitioners of polygamy, or "spiritual wifery," which evidently at this ranch took the form of the sanctified sexual assault of any female, young or old, whom the polygamist desired to take as a wife. The typical method for extracting sex from a young female, at least at most similar groups, was to inform the girl in question that God had commanded she become a wife to her suitor, and that she was free to choose her own fate--but if she did not marry and consent to the male's threats, God would condemn her to Hell for eternity. Entailed in these acts of metaphysical blackmail and sexual coercion were violations of the Texas statutory rape laws, which forbid people under 17 from consensual sex; violations of child abuse laws; a stunning system of tyrannical rule by a few sex-crazed men over what amounted to a small polygamist city; and unknown crimes resulting in the disappearance of many of the sect's teenage boys. And yet, until this April, the government of Texas had bothered to mount a legal case against the Zion Ranch only after the ranch owners failed to obtain permits for on-site sewage disposal and cement-mixing plants. Why the oversight? In a word: religion.
Were the men of Yearning for Zion ordinary pedophiles or serial rapists they would surely have been prosecuted as soon as evidence of their crimes could be pinpointed. But they are associated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, a splinter group of Mormons who still rigidly adhere to Joseph Smith's requirement that true Mormons must retain multiple wives. The FLDS split off when the mainstream Mormon Church finally banned polygamy, and has stuck to its defiantly conservative (and spectacularly misogynistic) brand of Mormonism ever since. The teachings of the FLDS church are what enabled the elders of Yearning for Zion (who may have been near the top of the church hierarchy, following the jailing of former leader Warren Jeffs) to create their system of abuse, rape and brainwashing. The teachings of FLDS are what enabled the Jeffs family to rule Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, (adjacent cities situated directly on the states' border) with an autocratic fist; what enabled the Jeffs family, indeed, to own all property in those twin cities; what permits an underground system of abuse against women and children in isolated communities across the American west, Canada and Mexico; and what advocates the support of these communities through various forms of tax fraud. Instances of systematic abuse of women and children among polygamist communities have been reported repeatedly in at least three American states and in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The largest formal polygamist community is in the twin cities of Colorado City and Hildale, in which it is common for cousins to marry and even for nieces to marry their uncles. Not coincidentally, this settlement also has the highest rate of fumarase deficiency in the world; fumarase deficiency is a rare and disastrous birth defect resulting in brain malformation, mental retardation, and epileptic seizures. Exactly how rare is this genetic defect? There are, in fact, more documented instances of babies born with symptoms of fumarase deficiency in the FLDS community than there have been in the history of the rest of the planet Earth.
It is this system, this web of inbreeding, rape and "spiritual wifery," which may now be protected by conservative faithful across America eager to preserve the religious freedoms provided for in the First Amendment. Some Christian legal groups have hinted that they may aid the polygamists, arguing that their jeopardy in Texas could result in restrictions of religious freedoms throughout the country. Lawyers for the Zion elders argue that the raid was unjustified on multiple levels--one of which was that the ranch dwellers should be free to practice their allegedly harmless faith without the intervention of the federal government. Canadian authorities dealing with stories of abuse at polygamist communities in that country have long been afraid to prosecute because of constitutional questions about freedom of religion.
Do our religious freedoms really protect the behavior which regularly occurs at polygamist communities like Colorado City and the Yearning for Zion Ranch? The First Amendment prohibits the federal government from impeding the "free exercise" of religious practices, and this language has in the past protected the use of the hallucinogenic drug peyote in "bonafide religious ceremonies," since it has long been a traditional part of Native American rituals, and the ritual slaughter of animals.
Most importantly, though, there is a precedent for a case similar to the polygamists' current quandary: Reynolds v. United States, heard in 1878 by the Supreme Court, concluded that criminal laws which do not specifically target an individual religious practice are supreme--and that they can therefore render illegal religious customs found to violate the law. In the specific case of Reynolds, the justices ruled that a national ban on polygamy took precedence over the Mormon "duty" to have multiple wives. Today, with a motley collection of polygamists, abusers and pedophiles citing religious freedom to defend their insular, inbred communities, it is important for American lawmakers and commentators, and the Texas government, to remember this policy. When religious practices and secular laws collide, the law should always triumph.
Naturally, the religious assertion that God Himself (or the equivalent) commands various rituals and inanities is an impediment to the application of this rule. This is a favorite line of argument among the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, who criticize the mainstream Mormon church for its disavowal of polygamy. They see the official Mormon position as a compromising of God's Word, as rendering earthly laws more important than divine prophecy. And to religious minds such as these surely the ideals of right and wrong stem not from the laws of our governments but from divine injunctions--whether they are to be honest and loyal, to abandon our wealth and work among the poor, or to marry our teenage cousins. To a hardline religious mindset like that shared by fundamentalist Mormons and Christians, the laws of God must take precedence over those of man. Ideally, though, they would live in communities where the two are identical--like the twin cities of Colorado City and Hildale, which were essentially ruled by the "revelations" of the Jeffs family, since the FLDS Church owned all the property in the towns until a few years ago. Any time God told Uncle Rulon Jeffs or his successor, Warren, that a new law was needed to govern the chosen people, that rule was accepted without question.
These cases, and the burgeoning fiasco that is the Yearning for Zion investigation, illustrate the need for religious freedoms to remain subsidiary to secular ethics and federal laws. It should be obvious by the mere fact that so many faiths have so many different moral laws--and that religion's ethical codes change so drastically over time (the Pope no longer endorses stoning of disobedient children, for example)--that a secular nation must derive its values, ethics and laws from wholly secular sources. It should be evident to all of us that no religion's prescription for good life on Earth is supreme, or even entirely correct. Our moral compass, our sense of right and wrong, does not derive from supernatural mandate, and neither should the laws by which we operate.
The question at hand, however, is whether those extremists blinded by their scriptures should be allowed to practice beliefs which we, by any reasonable standard, can deem wrong. After all, Joseph Smith did claim to receive a prophecy endorsing polygamy; if our fellow countrymen are dumb enough to follow that law, why should we stop them?
We should stop them for a number of reasons. We should hold people of all faiths accountable to our religion-free laws because we have now seen, in places like the Yearning for Zion ranch, the consequences of doing otherwise. The consequences are real and the abuses of power undeniable; if teenage girls are being married off and forced to bear children before reaching the legal age of consent, prosecution should ensue--whether or not it is "God's will." We should crack down upon the polygamists because to do otherwise would be to endorse hypocritical double standards, and moreover to provide tacit support to those who flout our laws, and favor those of their ethically and philosophically dubious God. We should not recognize their rights to violate our laws in the name of Joseph Smith because to do so would be to allow a religious (and clearly irrational) set of laws to trump those of our secular world.
It is almost irrelevant whether we, as secularists and believers in some sort of idea of "common good," should be defending or criticizing plural marriage as a practice. That's a question for another article (and another author). It's also not our concern whether the state of Texas had legitimate grounds for entering the Yearning for Zion ranch--it now seems they did not--or whether the state's child protection regime has been just and gentle in dealing with the children rescued from the ranch. The salient point in this argument is the threat Texas has made to the generally unquestioned freedom of religious crackpots to practice legally dubious rituals in isolated communities where they are unlikely to be prosecuted. Out of fear and image preservation, government officials have for decades treated polygamist communities with caution, and today, with fundamentalist Christians a loud and potent force on the American political scene, attacks on groups like the people of Yearning for Zion are perceived as attacks on religious freedoms in general.
If that is indeed the case--if the prosecution of rapists, pedophiles and rural tyrants violates religious freedoms--then let religious freedoms be violated. It is sometimes the case that the so-called principles of a religious movement will sanction practices which--to any impartial, secular observer--are blatantly unethical: torture or murder of heretics, slavery, subservience of women, sexual exploitation of teenage girls by their elders. It is the duty of good and just people to stand against such practices, and the religious beliefs which lie behind them. God's alleged word should be subject to the same ethical standards as man's word. If God's teachings, whether given to an isolated cult on a ranch in Texas or to a faith with millions of followers, violate our basic human understanding of right and wrong we must have the courage to pronounce God wrong. And when God's word and the law come into conflict, the law must prevail.
 In Texas the age of consent is 17.
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