Bill targets polygamist sect

Utah leader, noted author to testify

American-Statesman/April 13, 2005
By Mark Lisheron

The Utah attorney general has offered his help to state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, who is trying to crack down on multiple marriages among a religious sect building a town-size compound in West Texas.

Mark Shurtleff, who has made investigating the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints the centerpiece of his administration, is scheduled to discuss the implications of Hilderbran's House Bill 3006 today before the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee.

Another church critic, author Jon Krakauer, whose book "Under the Banner of Heaven" recounts the murder of a mother and daughter by two members of a similar polygamous sect, has also been asked to testify. Krakauer said he readily agreed to address the committee to warn Texans about the Fundamentalist Church, which is based in twin communities on the Utah and Arizona border.

"You folks out there have no idea what a time bomb you're sitting on," Krakauer said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "I think that the odds of a Texas version of Jonestown are huge, and I don't think many people there realize it."

Church leader Warren Jeffs and other leading officials in the Fundamentalist Church have never granted interviews to discuss positions of the church or its members.

Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said he crafted his bill specifically to discourage members of the polygamous sect from moving en masse from Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., to the compound they call YFZ (Yearning For Zion) Ranch, four miles north of Eldorado. The sect has built a temple, living quarters with rooms for hundreds of people, new homes, a grid of roads, and water and septic systems.

Officials for the sect have for more than a year insisted that the church was building the Eldorado compound as a religious retreat for, perhaps, 200 people at a time.

"I'm not shy about this: We don't want Eldorado, Texas, to become the next Hildale, Utah," Hilderbran said Tuesday at the Capitol. "We're not targeting their beliefs; we're targeting their behavior so that they do want to go somewhere else. I'm not shy about it."

The bill would raise the age of marriage without parental consent to 16 from 14 years old. Statistics on how many 14- and 15-year-olds marry in Texas were not readily available Tuesday.

The bill also prohibits people from marrying their stepparent or their stepchild. The bill also stipulates that someone can be prosecuted not only for violating the law by entering into illegal marriages but by "purporting to marry" or "appearing to marry."

The language of the bill is directed at the practice of Jeffs assigning girls and women to male church members based on the worthiness of the men. In the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, these marriages performed outside of the law are the way to eternal salvation for both men and women. A man must have at least three wives to reach the highest salvation in the church hierarchy.

The church has allowed marriages of mothers and their daughters and sisters to the same man. Jeffs has on several occasions reassigned wives to other men and in at least one instance assigned the wives of one man to the man's brother.

Hilderbran's bill also asks for the state to require that a person live in Texas for at least two years and in a district for at least a year before running for office. Church leaders in Hildale and Colorado City have control of the political offices, social services, law enforcement and schools. Residents of Eldorado, with a population of 2,000 people, and in Schleicher County, with a population of 3,000, have complained that a large influx of voting-age Fundamentalist Church members could irrevocably alter the balance of power in their region.

"This is the smallest county in my district, and the people there have been through it all," Hilderbran said. "At first they were concerned about recruiting young girls from Eldorado to be their wives, then taking over Schleicher County and the whole fear of another (Branch Davidian-like tragedy in) Waco. It would have been absolutely irresponsible not to do anything about it."

What might be a problem for the bill to gain passage is a lack of concrete evidence about the marriage practices of church members, the eventual size of the community north of Eldorado, the intentions of the church leadership and its capacity for violence, either against outsiders or against its own membership.

While outlawing polygamy statewide was a requirement for Utah's admission to the Union in 1890 and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has renounced the practice, polygamy is stubbornly rooted in breakaway sects like the Fundamentalist Church. According to Shurtleff, there are about 35,000 polygamists in Utah. And in spite of his investigative zeal, Shurtleff has managed to prosecute scant polygamy cases over the past five years.

"I would like to think that they've gone to Texas because we've brought real scrutiny of their activities to Utah, not that I wanted to send them to you," Shurtleff said Tuesday. "I think Rep. Hilderbran's bill will send the same kind of message."

House Bill 3006

"Raises minimum age of marriage from 14 to16.

"Prohibits marrying stepparents or stepchildren.

"Prohibits couples from 'purporting to marry' or 'appearing to marry.'

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