Opinions differ on FLDS classification

Scripps Howard News Service/April 16, 2008

Washington - As new details emerge about the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a central question about the polygamous religious group remains unclear: Is it a legitimate church?

The answer is clearer to the IRS and tax officials in Schleicher County, location of the Yearning For Zion Ranch. But it's still in debate within the Mormon community, including as many as 70 churches spawned from the movement Joseph Smith founded 150 years ago.

"It's nothing more than a cult," said Benjamin Bistline, who spent years as a devoted FLDS member in Short Creek, Ariz. "A cult is controlled by one person. What he says goes or you get booted."

But neither the FLDS nor the YFZ Ranch - scene of suspected child sexual and physical abuse - has filed for status as a nonprofit organization with the IRS, an IRS spokesman said.

In Schleicher County, records reflect the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, has not requested an exemption from property taxes as a religious organization, an option for qualifying property.

The YFZ Ranch's property tax tab adds up to $1 million from 2004 when the sect first began paying property taxes through 2007, according to the Schleicher County Appraisal District.

The tax bill raises the question of how the compound is being funded. So far, answers are scant.

Whatever the taxman's viewpoint, an expert on Mormon splinter groups considers FLDS a church.

To meet the definition, a church needs only a small group of people meeting to share religion and some sort of chain of command, said Steven Shields, who teaches at the Community of Christ Church in Independence, Mo.

The Greek word for church, "ecclesia," simply means a gathering of people doing something together, said Shields, who wrote "Divergent Paths of the Restoration."

The book explores some 400 "expressions" of Mormonism developed from Joseph Smith's prophecies during the mid-1800s.

A constitutional law professor agreed FLDS is a church.

But Douglas Laycock of the University of Michigan didn't think FLDS's status as a church would make any difference in court or in determining whether the raid on the sect in Schleicher County was lawful.

"If there's probable cause, the government can search churches like anyplace else," Laycock said.

After a tip, Child Protective Services removed 416 children from the 1,700-acre compound this month, and 139 women left willingly. They are living in San Angelo as authorities sort through handling their cases.

The FLDS practices a form of plural marriage in which the men take several "spiritual wives" that are not intended to be officially recognized by the law. The sect split from the Mormon Church decades ago when the latter renounced polygamy.

To Brian Hales, who has written extensively about polygamy, the FLDS is a cult.

"For many years, they wanted to not call themselves a church," Hales said.

Being a church implied responsibilities such as missionary work, a pillar of Mormonism, he said.

They weren't interested in missionary work, Hales said.

"They just wanted to live their own little lives and practice polygamy," he said.

Alonzo Gaskill, an assistant professor of World Religions at Brigham Young University, refused to label the sect as illegitimate.

"One first has to define what is meant by 'legitimate,' " he said. "In the end, legitimacy must be defined by the believer. An onlooker might claim a faith is somehow 'illegitimate,' but that doesn't make it such to the practitioner."

And just because FLDS is a church doesn't mean its practices are acceptable, Shields said.

"As an American, I don't think there's any place for that kind of thing - legally or psychologically - for permitting 14-year-old girls to be married to their 38-year-old uncles. That's wrong," Shields said.

After 40 years in the group, Bistline left in 1987 because leaders of the religious community, formerly "Priesthood Group," refused to give him a second wife.

"The women and kids aren't criminals," Bistline said. "But the men, they need to suffer."

Scripps Howard news investigative reporter Gavin Off contributed to this report.

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