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-Warren Jeffs’ Case and the Limits of Religious Freedom

by Dr. D ~ August 6th, 2011

Temple of the FLDS in El Dorado, Texas

                                (FLDS Compound in Texas via Wikipedia)

Warren Jeffs is the 55-year-old head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who was charged and recently convicted of child sexual assault and aggravated child sexual assault to two girls, ages 12 and 14, at his sect’s Texas ranch. His sentence is forthcoming.

Warren Jeffs claimed in court that he was the victim of religious persecution. His defense was that he was acting according to his religious beliefs. In fact, in several tirades in court he condemned the judge, jury, and prosecutors and claimed that they would experience the wrath of God for their actions.

According to Jeffs, the two girls were his ‘spiritual wives’ and his marriage and subsequent sex with the minors was normal and an acceptable part of their faith. It is Jeffs contention that polygamy is part of his religion and that girls at puberty in their religious communities are to be forced into arranged polygamous marriages regardless of their age.

The FLDS Church which reportedly has 10,000 members is a small polygamist off-shoot of the Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and considered a cult by most. Jeffs is said to hold nearly dictatorial control over the adherents of this group and even has the power to arrange for forced plural marriages of young women to older men within their community.

Jeffs is considered a ‘prophet’ among the FLDS who condone nearly all of his actions as God’s representative of the Kingdom of God on Earth. In his defense he appealed to a greater authority and contended that the court had no right to prosecute him since he was merely following God’s instruction and after all, freedom of religion is prescribed by the Constitution.

However state laws were broken and Jeffs was found guilty and will serve a sentence in jail for sexual child abuse regardless of his religious beliefs and contentions.

This points out the limits of the First Amendment and particularly freedom of religion. Regardless of religious beliefs everyone is still subject to the laws of the land. Sometimes the courts are asked to rule between certain laws and freedom of religion. Polygamy is against the law in all 50 states and the U.S. Supreme Court already ruled in 1878 that it was not defensible as an exercise of religious liberty.

However many states are slow to act against known polygamists. Utah in particular has largely ignored thousands of polygamists including the FLDS living within the state. But in the Jeffs case, Texas authorities responded when it became an issue of potential child abuse within the Texas FLDS community.

It is cases like this that challenge the limits of freedom of religion in this country. While religious polygamists are seldom charged with breaking the law. When it comes to sexually abusing girls as young 12 and 14, authorities in this case appropriately drew the line in spite of protests by Jeffs and the FLDS that it was part of their religion.

Freedom of religion in this country does not mean that religious leaders are free to do anything they want, including breaking laws, abusing children, and excusing it as part of their religion.           *Top

**UPDATE- 8/9/11:  Jeffs sentenced to life in prison and a $10,000 fine. 

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