9 Jun 2008

Polygamous sect's no-underage-marriage vow: Will it be honored?

The Salt Lake Tribune - June 9, 2008

They say 'we mean it,' but know outsiders might balk at believing them

by Brooke Adams

For years, a polygamous sect seemed willing to risk everything in a standoff with government over underage marriages: property, prophet, progeny.
Now, a week after a church elder delivered a statement saying the FLDS Church would no longer sanction such marriages, the question is: Problem solved?
Maybe, maybe not.
In Texas, authorities investigating the sect have made as much of its polygamous life-style as underage marriages. But in Utah and Arizona, where most members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints live, authorities have long said that marriage age, not polygamy, is the issue.
"We're still trying to find out what it means," said Paul Murphy, spokesman for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. "This could be the most significant thing that has happened to the FLDS Church in years.
"I'm hoping this is a sign . . . that the FLDS Church is stepping into the 21st century as far as what people will accept and not accept as far as marriages," he said.

"We mean it": Church spokesman Willie Jessop issued the "clarification" a week ago on a dusty road outside a meetinghouse at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
The key section of the statement said the church would commit to "not preside over the marriage of any woman under the age of legal consent
in the jurisdiction in which the marriage takes place. The church will counsel families that they neither request nor consent to any underage marriages."
Jessop said the policy was not a reaction to the April 3 raid at the ranch, which led to the removal of some 450 children. A judge signed an order allowing the children to be returned to their parents hours before Jessop read the statement.
He said the policy had been in place for about 18 months and, because of attention brought on the group by the raid, was now being shared publicly.
"Not only do we mean it, we've lived it," he said, adding that the policy applied to both monogamous and plural marriages. "This isn't like the manifesto where we condemn it publicly and then do it privately," said Jessop, a reference to the 1890 declaration made by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowing polygamy.
Plural marriages continued within the church for more than a decade before they were stopped, an act that seeded the breakoff of fundamentalist sects. The LDS Church now excommunicates members who support or practice plural marriage.
"The Manifesto was a fundamental change in the belief structure of the church," said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney and sect spokesman. "The timing of the actual marriage is not a fundamental core part of [the sect's] belief. It is not a compromise in the same way the Manifesto was."

"Not a gray area": Experts and current and former sect members alike describe a diverse marriage-age pattern in the FLDS Church. Teenage girls, they say, are not routinely married off.
"The claims of detractors of the number of underage marriages is overblown," said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta attorney and historian of Mormon fundamentalism.
But until last week, the FLDS - unlike other polygamous groups in Utah and Arizona - had refused to publicly denounce the practice. In fact, six years ago the FLDS took a decidedly different stance, one that set the sect on a devastating collision course with government officials.
In an April 2002 church meeting, an elder stood and encouraged the congregation to stay strong against coming attacks on the sect's marriage practices, including marriages of underage girls.
"They said marriages involving 15- or 16-year-olds was a gray area and we said it's not a gray area," Murphy said.
At the time, Warren Jeffs was acting as the de facto leader of the church for his ailing father; he took over five months later.
As warned, Utah and Arizona initiated actions aimed at dismantling the group. The states began prosecuting men who had spiritually married underage girls and took over the sect's property holdings in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.; and Bountiful, British Columbia.
They also helped set the stage for the Texas raid, which targeted the sect's most sacred property and a portion of its next generation. Shurtleff, for example, testified before a Texas legislative committee in favor of changes to the state's marriage laws that may now be used to prosecute FLDS members.

A vow to stop: Shurtleff, who underwent surgery last week and was unavailable for comment, said months ago that he believed the sect's underage marriages had stopped.
Jessop said Jeffs was not involved in crafting the policy. If it has been in place for 18 months or so, it was adopted after Jeffs' arrest in August 2006. Jeffs was convicted in September of rape as an accomplice in Utah based on an underage marriage he conducted in 2001 and is awaiting trial in Arizona on two similar allegations.
The policy also apparently came after at least four marriages - the last a month before his arrest - between Jeffs and underage girls, including two who were 12.
"When people saw the pictures of Warren Jeffs kissing a 12-year-old, that embodied the whole issue," Murphy said.
Several FLDS members, who declined to be named, said they found the photos just as shocking, even as they offered up scenarios that might explain them. Jessop claims Jeffs' marriages to the youngest girls were never consummated. But a search warrant used to obtain DNA samples from Jeffs alleges he fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl in October 2005.
DNA tests collected in Texas may show whether other men in the sect fathered children with underage girls to whom they were spiritually, but not legally, married - provided they participated in the tests.
Meanwhile, Parker said the sect intends to make good on its promise to end underage marriages.
"There is no question that it is going to take time for the outside world to have confidence in that statement," Parker said.
Utah officials are arranging a meeting with FLDS leaders to learn more about the new policy, which Murphy said would go a long way to resolving key problems the group has faced.
"I just wish this was an effort made years ago," he said.

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