Unpacking the unusual story of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) is no easy task. There are a slew of discomforting allegations involving teenage girls being forced to marry much older men who already have multiple wives. Despite the fantastic accusations, there isn’t any credible evidence of serious wrong doing. In fact, it appears the FLDS is being persecuted for its extreme religious views.
The practices of the reclusive FLDS seem outlandish to most observers. Even though they obviously wanted to be left alone, the FLDS couldn’t escape neighborhood gossip. The Associated Press has an informative article that provides plenty of salacious details about events leading up to the April 3 raid of the FLDS compound. It all began with David S. Allred buying 1691 acres of land in Eldorado, Texas in late 2003. Within five years, the property had become a self-sustaining community with its own cement plant, limestone temple, and barracks.
Naturally, Allred’s neighbors were curious about the round-the-clock construction activity, and several of them actively spied on their neighbors. In this area of west Texas, it’s not uncommon for residents to own twin-engine planes, and some Eldorado locals flew over and took aerial photos of the FLDS compound. The FLDS was further hassled when the local weekly paper, the Eldorado Success, ran a story in March 2004 accusing the FLDS of polygamy.
The raid earlier this month was prompted by a phone call from someone claiming to be a teenage girl being held against her will at the FLDS compound. Based on that one single accusation, the government mounted an excessive response. According to the Associated Press, “hundreds of agents — a SWAT team, FBI agents, Texas Rangers, San Angelo police, highway patrol, and sheriff’s department officers from four counties — raided the YFZ [Yearning for Zion] ranch, backed by an armored personnel carrier, K9 dog units and ambulances.”
Last week’s court hearing to determine the fates of the 400+ children displaced by the raid has been consistently described as a “farce,” with a courtroom packed full of lawyers, media, and women in 18-century wardrobe. Although there wasn’t much time for evidence to be admitted during the hearing, the FLDS children remain in state custody.
Notwithstanding their marginal lifestyle, and notwithstanding the sensational allegations against the FLDS, there is sparse evidence of abuse. The FLDS is merely guilty of being outsiders who have a nuanced view of marital obligations. They are also Americans, and entitled to a presumption of innocence. On Friday, it was reported the phone call that sparked the FLDS raid may actually have been placed by a woman with a history of making false reports, not a teenager in distress.
During the “farce” court hearing, actual on-the-record evidence came in the form of testimony by two government employees – Angie Voss, an investigator with the Texas Dept. of Family and Protective Services, and Sgt. Danny Crawford, who participated in the raid. Voss testified about her interviews with the children and teenagers, and said that the FLDS had a practice of arranging marriages between teenage girls and older men. According to Voss, the FLDS was a highly patriarchal, polygamist community. Crawford testified that FLDS records showed some girls had been married at 16 or 17 years old.
Under repeated questioning, Crawford acknowledged there was no evidence of sexual abuse. Even though Voss speculated that many FLDS women must have been impregnated when they were younger than 16, no underage pregnant girls were taken into custody in the raid. The raid did capture five pregnant FLDS members between the ages of 16 and 19, but the age of consent is 16 in Texas. There aren’t any complainants against the FLDS other than one suspicious phone call, which may turn out to be fraudulent.
Based on available evidence, the FLDS may be guilty of polygamy, which is merely a different view of the marriage contract, and harms no one outside of the FLDS sect. If there’s no evidence that girls under the age of consent are being forced to perform sex acts against their will, there’s no compelling state interest in persecuting a group of Americans who have their own unique “family values.” There’s no reason to believe that the FLDS is a danger to society, even if they creep most people out. Unless stronger evidence of sexual abuse comes to light, we should leave them alone (which seems to be exactly what they want).