A Mainstream Mormon's Test of Faith

Seven months have passed since the polygamist raid in Eldorado, but the effects linger

On April 24, CPS supervisors showed up at the coliseum with police escort. All children over the age of one would be separated from their mothers and sent to shelters and foster homes scattered throughout the state. According to one mental health worker, "the floor was literally slick with tears."

Public opinion seemed split over what the state had done. Editorials in The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle all expressed measured support for the state's actions, arguing that CPS officials had every right to protect children from a community that encouraged, and in some cases forced, teenage girls to enter into plural marriages. Anti-polygamy activists like Flora Jessop made the rounds on the morning TV talk shows, describing the world inside the Eldorado compound as a hellish place where young women were essentially chattel, forced to work and have babies until their insides fell out.

At the same time, hundreds of letters from across the country poured into Governor Rick Perry's office, imploring the state to return the children to their parents. The case had become a flash point in the culture wars. Some saw it as excessive governmental intrusion. Some called it a troubling example of religious persecution. Still others branded FLDS as a strange and backward people who hid behind the First Amendment to get away with sexually abusing children.

The raid on the polygamists at the YFZ Ranch took the Texas Rangers into another world.
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
The raid on the polygamists at the YFZ Ranch took the Texas Rangers into another world.
Most mainstream Mormons see no connection between themselves and the breakaway sect of fundamentalist Mormons led by "Prophet" Warren Jeffs (center).
AP Photo/Laura Rauch
Most mainstream Mormons see no connection between themselves and the breakaway sect of fundamentalist Mormons led by "Prophet" Warren Jeffs (center).

I knew that the events of the past two months would only strengthen the faith of the polygamists, adding to the persecution complex that is part of their narrative. In 1953, the governor of Arizona ordered a similar raid, resulting in 120 arrests and the placement of 260 children in foster care. Media coverage turned public opinion against the governor. The parents were released from jail, their children returned and the governor voted out of office. For the polygamists, the incident was just one more example of how the world persecutes God's people. The Egyptians enslaved the Jews, the Romans killed Christ, the mobs of Illinois killed Joseph Smith and now the State of Texas found itself on the wrong side of history.

I go back and forth. On one hand, it didn't seem fair to take children away from their parents — not unless the parents have abused them or engaged in polygamy. And yet there were equities that favored the state.

Child Protective Services reported to the press that of the 53 teenage girls found at the ranch, 31 were pregnant or had children as teenagers, seemingly irrefutable proof that teens were marrying at a young age in a community that strictly forbids contact between opposite sexes before marriage. It was hard to argue that young girls weren't being groomed for a life of indentured servitude and that young men weren't being indoctrinated to become sexual predators.

When I return to the courthouse, a long line has formed to get in. I find my place behind a pair of FLDS women. They are dressed in matching prairie dresses made of stiff cotton. They wear dark socks and cheap-looking black tennis shoes. Both have fashioned their hair in tight, elaborate braids, their faces unadorned by makeup. They whisper to each other, ignoring the photographers snapping pictures a few feet away.

I follow the women into the courthouse and take my seat in a large, aging courtroom — one of several that will house these hearings. In court, it becomes clear that the state's case is on shaky ground. One attorney after another hammers CPS for taking so many children into custody without any evidence of sexual or physical abuse. There may have been a few bad apples on the ranch, but that didn't justify the mass seizure, lawyers say. Instead, the state should have looked at each child on a case-by-case basis.

An attorney ad litem from Dallas, Susan Hays, later explains to me the state's theory of the case: "Because these people share the same faith and because they live in the same community, the state feels it can treat them as the same household," she says. "They think they can take these kids because all these folks think alike."

This argument troubles me: It seemed unfair to treat each family as part of one giant family — an extension of the same religious bigotry that Mormons have suffered throughout our history.

I talk to another Dallas lawyer, Charles Grimm, who represents a woman who was 18 when she got married. Her husband is 22, and while they are FLDS, they live as a monogamous couple. Their 19-month-old child has been taken into state custody. "They're trying to protect the child from something that may happen 20 years from now, or may never happen," Grimm says, referring to other polygamous marriages.

In another courtroom, Austin attorney Andrea Sloan begins to dismantle the state's strongest evidence. In media reports, CPS has claimed that 31 pregnant teenagers were found at the ranch, but Sloan points out that the majority of these girls are actually adults who have never claimed to be minors, despite the state's assertion. "My client is 27 years old," she says. "And until last night [CPS] would not acknowledge that. They claimed that she was a minor, even though from the beginning she told them the truth."

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