24 May 2008


Further to my previous piece, obviously the issue of polygamy came up in the context of the raid on the FLDS community in Texas.

It's difficult to judge who's right or wrong when the facts are still unclear, but various difficult questions are raised. One of them was polygamy itself - based on my reasoning earlier, I would say that there's no need to ban polygamy itself, but its existence raises a particular question of whether women in the community are being denied their right to leave their husbands.

Again, based on what I've already written, my attention would go first to the "first wives", because it's their behaviour which is the most anomalous relative to the wider society. Have any of them tried to go to court to get a divorce and an income or a share of assets, and what has been the result? Presumably they are taught that divorce is wrong, which is fine, provided they are not actually restrained if they change their mind.

Public attention has been centred on the younger women who become second "wives". The accusation is that some of them are under legal age. This has not been substantiated, and it emerges that some of the "underage mothers" that were taken from the compound were in their twenties. If it turns out that underage girls are having sex with "husbands", then crimes are obviously being committed. There is then a wider question of who else is guilty, beyond the men themselves. The difference between a marriage which is not legally recognised on one and and an affair on the other is that a marriage is publicly recognised. If the rest of the community has been knowingly participating in ceremonies where underage women are entering into marriages, then it would seem to me that they are complicit in the crime. In any case, I understand that Texas has laws specifically against marriage ceremonies involving minors, which strikes me as a sensible way of clarifying that question. There could be tricky questions around what is or is not a marriage ceremony, but I think they can be resolved - if the participants in the ceremony know that the couple is going to live together immediately, then it is a marriage ceremony. In the FLDS, that question is not likely to be controversial anyway.

My position so far is that if married women are being prevented from leaving or suing for divorce outside the FLDS community, or if underage women are being openly1 taken into sexual relationships, then crimes are being committed which need to be prosecuted. The next question is: what steps can justifiably be taken to investigate these factual questions? This is to my mind the most difficult questions. On the one hand, the Texas authorities seem to have undertaken very drastic action on the basis of very little evidence, which itself has turned out to be fake (the phone call). On the other hand, if the sort of crimes I have discussed are taking place, then how will they ever be exposed without barging in and questioning many members of the community privately? There may be room for disagreement about what was going on in Eldorado, but what about Khyra Ishaq who starved to death in Birmingham? What about Josef Fritzl with his daughter imprisoned in his basement? These cannot be prevented without being prepared to poke into people's privacy to a certain degree without very much evidence. I am attracted to the idea that every man's home is his castle, but can we really allow them to contain dungeons2?

They had the phone call (presumably they reasonably believed it to be genuine to start with), they had what could be called a prejudice, but in the light of the above I think a reasonable prejudice, that a closed, polygamous group is likely to be up to no good; I think they had sufficient ground for some kind of investigation, and in the circumstances any investigation would necessarily be very intrusive. It looks a bit as if the steps they took were excessive, but I'm willing to wait and see as the facts really come out.

There are even more issues over the status of adults in the community: the first is whether they have been "brainwashed" or "conditioned" in such a way that they are not free to leave even if they are not physically prevented from doing so. I don't think the law can recognise that. There is no government in the world that I would trust to overrule what a mentally competent adult says she wants.

The second is similar: Growing up in a community where dissenting will mean losing contact with everyone the dissenter has ever known itself makes it questionable whether members are really free to leave. Again, I would be reluctant to trust a government to go against an adult's stated wishes "for her own good", but that is not to deny the problem. Other ex-members can provide support - if the public wishes to make it easier for members to leave, probably the best method is to assist those groups. Googling around produces, for example, this Ex-Mormon Support Group. Presumably there are others.

1 Obviously if minors are secretly having sex, that's illegal too, but it's harder to do anything about, and in any case minors are having sex all the time. What's distinctive here is the allegation that the whole community is aware of minors being "married".
2 Note I'm not actually opposed to dungeons per se, that was just a poetic way of saying people shouldn't have sufficient privacy to be able to secretly imprison people.

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