26 Oct 2008

Utah residents make polygamy forefront of AG race

Associated Press - October 25, 2008


SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Polygamy is never far from the minds of Utah residents — even when it occurs in another state.

A raid on a polygamist compound in Texas earlier this year that put more 400 kids in state custody has become one of the biggest issues in the race for Utah attorney general.

Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Democratic challenger Jean Welch Hill both told The Associated Press that the first question they are asked by voters is always about polygamy, even as they try to focus on other issues.

"They all want to know what we're doing and continue to plan to do in regard to the polygamy issue," Shurtleff said. "They encourage us to make sure we go down that road and hold these guys responsible who use religion to hurt kids."

There are an estimated 37,000 polygamists in the West, most of them in Utah. Polygamy is a legacy of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which founded Utah and remains its dominant religion. The faith abandoned the practice in 1890 as a condition of statehood, but many self-described fundamentalist Mormons still believe in the principle.

In 2007, Shurtleff's office helped prosecute polygamous church leader Warren Jeffs, who was convicted of two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the 2001 marriage of a 14-year-old follower to her 19-year-old cousin.

Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is primarily centered in twin communities straddling the Utah-Arizona state line, but some followers began moving to Eldorado, Texas, in 2004.

This past April, Texas authorities raided the group's Yearning for Zion ranch at Eldorado after a report that a teenage girl had been physically and sexually abused. That call is now considered a hoax, but children were separated from their families for about two months while police and child welfare authorities investigated. Nine FLDS men now face indictments on charges related to underage marriage and bigamy.

Hill contends the entire raid was ill-conceived.

"To just do an all-out raid and suddenly take kids out of their homes and into foster communities, it does more damage than it can justify on a phone call and an anonymous phone call," she said. "So you really need to think (a raid) through and maybe take longer to investigate that."

Shurtleff initially supported the raid, contending that Texas authorities had to raid the compound because of the isolated nature of FLDS settlements. Law enforcement "couldn't just go in and knock on the door and check in on one allegation of assault," Shurtleff said. "What I did criticize them publicly for is taking all 500 kids without any specifics. To take each of those children, and then when they said they were going to go forward, 'We don't have evidence of specific abuse'? I'm not going to come in and take away all the families, all the kids. I'm going to deal with their case alone."

Shurtleff has used his first two terms in office to investigate and prosecute crimes associated with polygamy, such as incest, child sexual abuse and welfare fraud. He said it's unreasonable to prosecute thousands of families under the state's bigamy statute and place children under state care.

"It's based on the reality that we don't have the resources, and I think Texas provides an example. We have thousands of polygamists in Utah and probably 10,000 kids," Shurtleff said. "They were having a hard time (with hundreds). If we were to go out and start arresting every couple, every adult consenting to polygamy, then we would have to build thousands of jail beds. How are we possibly going to take those kids into custody? The costs are astronomical. The resources aren't there."

Hill said polygamists should never have to fear being prosecuted for their religion. She contends that the state's bigamy statute is unconstitutional in the wake of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling Lawrence v. Texas. That case struck down a Texas sodomy law, saying it violated the due process clause and that the state has no justifiable interest intruding into the private lives of consenting adults.

"Our bigamy law still stands but, frankly, it's indefensible based on that ruling," Hill said. "You can prosecute for forced marriages, but to actively prosecute a polygamist for being a polygamist? You're not going to succeed."

Shurtleff disagrees, saying the state's bigamy laws would be upheld. He's more concerned about polygamy being legalized under a court ruling in favor of gay marriage than Lawrence v. Texas.

"Once you take it to the next level of marriage and children, marriage and divorce, that's different than having sex with who you want in the privacy of your home," he said.

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