Carson City, Nevada -- The U.S. Senate's top Democrat called Tuesday for a federal investigation into the activities of polygamists in Western states.
Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that a task force should be formed to look into interstate activities of polygamists. He also asked the Justice Department to help state prosecutors dealing with polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs.
"For too long, this outrageous activity has been disguised in the mask of religious freedom," Reid said. "But child abuse and human servitude have nothing to do with religious freedom and must not be tolerated."
Reid, a Mormon, added that Jeffs is part of a sect that broke away from the Mormon Church more than a century ago and has been disavowed by leaders and mainstream members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A reporter's call to the Justice Department's after-hours command center was transferred to the department's press office, where there was no answer.
Jeffs, 50, is charged with two felony counts of rape as an accomplice, accused of arranging a "spiritual marriage" between an underage girl and an older man. Each count carries a penalty of five years to life in prison.
The leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was arrested Aug. 28 by the Nevada Highway Patrol during a traffic stop and is being held without bail. He had been on the run for about a year-and-a-half when he was arrested.
Besides the Utah charges, Jeffs is facing two felony charges in Mohave County, Ariz., for a similarly arranged marriage involving an underage girl. He is expected to be prosecuted there after Utah proceedings have concluded.
Polygamist communities have tended to gather in remote areas of the West, where they can avoid the attention of authorities and larger society more easily. Plural marriage is illegal in all 50 states, but authorities have found it difficult to find witnesses who will come forward and enable them to prosecute.