Criminal Justice

Church Leader, Polygamy on Trial in UT Rape Case

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Opening arguments are expected to begin today in a Utah teen-rape case that is widely seen as putting on trial not only the defendant, Warren Jeffs, but the polygamist practices of the church community he leads.

Jeffs, 51, heads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a fringe Mormon community with some 10,000 members. He is being tried on two charges of accomplice rape, for allegedly coercing a 14-year-old girl to have sex with her 19-year-old first cousin. She was told by Jeffs she would risk her eternal salvation if she didn’t marry her cousin and have sex with him, according to ABC News and the Salt Lake Tribune.

There are widespread reports that the church community encourages such abuse of teenage girls and, in another practice that promotes polygamy, abandons teenage boys. The ABA Journal, CNN and the New York Times are among the publications that have recently discussed these issues. However, prosecutions are rare, in part because children raised in the community are very reluctant to risk ostracism by complaining, and in part because charges are perceived, even by many outside the community, as religious persecution. Hence, the Jeffs case is seen as a milestone.

“While prosecutors have taken pains to point out that polygamy is not on trial, the state’s longtime tolerance for the practice seems ever present, looming just beneath the surface of any discussions of Jeffs and his followers,” writes ABC.

During juror questioning yesterday, the judge in the case, James Shumate, said members of Jeffs’ church see polygamy as comparable to other acts of civil disobedience, such as blacks refusing to sit in the back of the bus in the 1960s, the Tribune reports in an earlier article. The newspaper also offers archived coverage of the case.

In Canada, similar issues face authorities attempting to deal with another branch of the same religious community, which allegedly is forcing underage girls into marriages with older men. As discussed in an earlier post, a special prosecutor has recommended that authorities ask Canada’s courts for a determination on the legality of plural marriage before pursuing any cases against the sect.

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