Prosecuting Religious Beliefs

On Friday I saw the news from the first day of the Warren Jeffs trial. Connected to the particular story that I read was audio of Jeffs teaching youth classes in his polygamous community. I was curious to hear the words and voice of a man as twisted as Jeffs has been portrayed in the media. I was surprised to find a man whose voice and tone were so mild an unpretentious. I had expected someone more commanding and authoritative, but I found someone who was earnest and soft-spoken. (This should not be taken as an endorsement for any of the doctrines of his church.)

As I learned more of the details of the case being prosecuted I was surprised to learn that polygamy was not even an issue in this case. The bride was 14 at the time she married her 19 year old cousin as his first wife. One of my brothers is almost that much older than his wife, so the age difference is of little concern. Nor have I seen any indications that the husband took a second wife at any point. I started to wonder if the prosecution is wasting time on a case that they expect to lose.

This realization got me thinking about the slippery slope we get on the moment that we start legislating against belief and not actions. I am convinced that Warren Jeffs honestly believes in the doctrines of his church – after all, he grew up with that belief system. I think of Alma 1: 17-18

. . . now the law could have no power on any man because of his belief. And they durst not steal for fear of the law, for such were punished; neither durst they rob, nor murder, for he that murdered was punished unto death.

We can’t try to stamp out a belief in the practice of polygamy. We can enforce the laws against the practice of polygamy, but this trial is set up as an attempt to dampen the beliefs of those who engage in polygamy – that is not something that the law is equipped to do, nor is it something that the law should attempt to do.

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About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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6 Responses to Prosecuting Religious Beliefs

  1. Jeremy says:

    Do you think it should be ok for religious leaders and zealous parents to force 14 year old daughters to marry against their will?

    I agree with you that much of the ill will being generated against Jeffs in the media by Shurtleff and the prosecution is focused on polygamy but there is still merit to this case.

  2. David says:

    I did not mean for this to sound like I approved of the situation in this case – there is certainly merit in the case. The problem I see is in how the situation is being prosecuted. I would not argue that there is no merit here, but I would argue that there are many other situations where they could make a much stronger case against Jeffs.

    I disagree with zealous parents forcing their 14 year old daughter to marry against her will, but I also recognize that those parents do not see this the same way that we do. There was no malice in their actions – they were following what they had grown up believing. We can’t prosecute strictly on the basis of parents forcing their children to do something. Where do we draw the line between this and me forcing my 5 year old to stay in her room for a timeout?

    I am arguing that this makes a decent case for the media, but not so much for the courtroom. They need a case that will not need to be decided on perception and emotion – they need a case that can clearly be decided based strictly on fact and I don’t think this is such a case. The worst part of it is that I believe that there are many cases against Jeffs that they could make that would be based strictly on fact.

  3. Reach Upward says:

    In Utah 14-year-olds are not considered capable of consent under the law. Therefore, sexual relations with a 14-year-old, even if that person invites it, are considered illegal. The common term for this is stautory rape. Therefore, in Utah no one has a right to marry or to have sexual relations with a child that is 14 or younger.

    I completely disagree with your contention that there is no problem with the age difference. There is a world of difference between a relationship between a 14-year-old and a 19-year-old and a relationship between a 24-year-old and a 19-year-old. It’s a matter of psychological development. The law recognizes this fact.

    I have several problems with the Jeffs case. One is that no charges have been filed for the primary violation of statutory rape. By law, the groom is a rapist. He has not been charged. And yet Jeffs is being charged, in effect, as an accomplice to this uncharged crime.

    Also, this law was created to prosecute people that physically contribute to rape. Think of somebody holding a person down so that the rape can occur. The main question is whether Jeffs’ actions rose to that level of coercion. It seems that the state is interpreting this statute far too broadly.

    On the other hand, I wonder what we would think of a junior high principle that, in private counseling in his school office encourages one of his 14-year-old students to have sex with her 19-year-old first cousin, even if religion were not involved. It would be front-page news. I think we’d want that man’s head on a platter. Would we charge him with the same crime with which the state has charged Jeffs?

  4. David says:

    It seems that you have found the exact problem that I was seeing with this case. The husband is clearly guilty of statutory rape and yet he has not been charged with anything. We are not simply applying the existing law, we are interpreting it in an attempt to curtail a religious belief.

    Jeffs is guilty in the same way as the hypothetical junior high school principle you wrote about. I’m not exactly sure what the proper charger would be, but we would be justly outraged.

    I still do not see a problem with the age difference. The problem is the age. Prior to learning the details of the case the news was focused on situations of 14 year old brides being married to 45 year old men – that is a case where the age difference is problematic. I would be worried if it were a 19 year old marrying a 50 year old or a 34 year old marrying a 65 year old.

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