By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
In 1890, under pressure from the federal government, the church disavowed polygamy in a statement known today as the Manifesto. For years church members continued to practice plural marriage in secret, considering the Manifesto more of an accommodation than the will of God. Those unwilling to accommodate gave birth to fundamentalist Mormonism and the secret polygamous colonies throughout Utah, Arizona and Mexico.
When I graduated from Columbia University in the summer of 2004, my parents and mother-in-law came to New York — my wife was also pregnant with our first child. My dad seemed proud of my degree but also worried about the influence on his son of a liberal, secular school. His fears were confirmed a few days later. We were headed to upstate New York to visit Joseph Smith's birthplace when I told him I didn't see how a just God could ever sanction the practice of polygamy. I felt that it devalued women and put them in a subservient role to men. He sat in silence, staring out the window at the lush greenery. He was a good man whose approval I had always sought, and I felt saddened that I had disappointed him. But I couldn't deny how I felt.
In the ensuing years, my questions about polygamy would morph into doubts about the existence of God, and I began to wonder if I could continue being a Mormon. To leave the church would fracture my relationships with my wife, my family and many of my closest friends, all of whom held an unquestioning faith.
I decided to tolerate my doubts and eventually made peace with them. Sure, there were things about my church's history I didn't understand, but when it came to polygamy, the only difference between Mormonism and other major faiths was time: Muslims, Jews and Christians all accepted as prophets men who had once practiced polygamy.
Besides, my doubts were few compared to the many things I loved about my faith. As a Mormon, I belonged to a tight-knit community that taught the importance of service, helping the poor and self-sacrifice. I loved the church's emphasis on strong families and living a highly ethical life. As a missionary in Brazil, I had seen how the acceptance and application of the gospel contained in the Book of Mormon could better people's lives. I believed in the kind of people the church produced, and I wanted my sons to be those people. Even more so, I couldn't deny the spiritual witnesses of God's existence I had felt numerous times since reading the Book of Mormon. Or the spiritual confirmation I felt when I watched my wife's devotion as she prayed; when I lay next to my sons and watched them peacefully drift off to sleep; when I returned home to my family's farm in Nevada and gazed at the big endless sky.
Now, as I drive to Eldorado, I realize that my doubts about polygamy never really went away. I had simply ignored them.
On the morning of May 19, I pull into San Angelo. More than a month has passed since District Judge Barbara Walther allowed the state to remove on an emergency basis 468 FLDS children from the YFZ Ranch and placed them in foster care. This morning, at the Tom Green County Courthouse, dozens of lawyers from around the state — attorneys ad litem appointed by the court to represent the children — will argue in a temporary custody hearing that the judge acted outside the scope of law and that the children should be returned to their parents.
I drive by the courthouse, which was built in 1928 of stone quarried from the surrounding desert. The front lawn, still damp from the morning dew, is cordoned off with yellow police tape. News trucks from San Antonio, Houston and Dallas — representing ABC, CNN and Fox News — are parked in front against the curb. So far, there are no signs of the polygamists.
With an hour to kill before the first custody hearing, I drive to the old San Angelo Coliseum, where the FLDS women and children were bused after the April 3 raid. For ten days, the children and some of their mothers lived in the building, sleeping on cots. Many of the children, separated from their parents, were unsure of what was happening. In one instance, a three-year-old boy walked along a row of cots, asking for his mother. Two CPS workers trailed behind him, taking notes but offering no help, according to workers from Hill Country Community Mental Health-Mental Retardation Center, which the state had retained to provide services inside the coliseum. Eventually, the boy's eight-year-old brother heard his cries and picked the boy up, rocking him to sleep.
"That little boy will always be in my mind," one mental health worker wrote in letters that were later given to the press. "How can a beautiful, healthy child be taken from a healthy, loving home and forced into a situation like that, right here in America, right here in Texas?"
There was, as usual, another side of the story. In an affidavit, CPS officials asserted that FLDS leaders were "indoctrinating and grooming minor female children to accept spiritual marriage to adult male members," and that young boys were taught upon reaching adulthood that they, too, should take teen brides, "resulting in them becoming sexual perpetrators." As CPS saw it, this put all children at the ranch at risk of "emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse."