Thursday, April 17, 2008

Odd sect targeted for destruction?

There's a lot to dislike about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Basically, any religion that seemingly tailors its theology to assure old men a steady stream of teenage brides is worthy of regarding with a hairy eyeball. Church members also have a reputation for milking social services, using taxpayers to subsidize their way of life.

But does that mean that FLDS adherents don't have a right to raise and educate their children as they see fit, so long as they don't subject them to abuse?

That's the big question hovering over the hearings in San Angelo, Texas. When authorities raided the Yearnings for Zion Ranch FLDS settlement and made off with 416 children, they didn't confine their interest to adolescent girls forced into relations with older men. They took children of both sexes, and much younger than any at risk of coerced marriage. And when the women of the community tearfully demanded the return of their children, "experts" were trotted out to insist that the grown adults protesting their treatment at the hands of the state had been "brainwashed" through physical and emotional abuse, religious faith and fear of banishment.

So, of course, there's no need to pay them any attention.

Not everybody buys the argument that people who choose to live differently should be assumed to have been forced into that life. Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University and author of a book on religious fundamentalism told ABC News:

"Brainwashing is actually extraordinarily rare," said Ammerman. "It implies that the person has literally lost the ability to think independently and to make choices.

"We really don't have any evidence that anything even vaguely resembling that is going on with this particular group or with most religious groups."

Some of the FLDS women went with the children to watch over them while they were held at a state shelter. But don't try to ask them how they and the sect's younger members are being treated -- they've been cut off from outside contact. According to the New York Times, "Officials first confiscated all the cellphones held by the children and mothers who went with them to shelter to prevent communication with outsiders. Later, they separated the mothers from children older than 6 in hopes of getting them to talk without a parent in attendance."

Increasingly, the Texas raid is looking less like an effort to assure the well-being of a teenage girl who called for help -- and who may or may not actually exist -- and more like a scheme to destroy an unusual religious community with some admittedly unsavory practices. Government officials targeted the FLDS for destruction once before -- in the wildly misfired raid of 1953 that turned sect members from reviled outsiders into sympathetic victims of the state. Now, in more government-friendly times, authorities seem dead-set on destroying the sect by depriving it of a next generation.

The hearing in San Angelo has been described as "chaotic" with upwards of 350 lawyers -- many of them volunteers -- involved. That's a good thing when there's so much at stake.

At the end of the day, any FLDS members involved in coercing and abusing church members should be severely punished. But the overall treatment of the sect's children by the state will tell us whether there's still room in the U.S. for people who want to raise their families according to beliefs and customs at odds with those of the mainstream.

Update: The phone calls that triggered the armed raid on the FLDS ranch appear to be bogus. That raises big questions about the legal rationale for state intervention, and for seizing hundreds of children from their families and holding them in captivity.

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Anonymous John Moore said...

While I agree with much of what you said, I don't agree about the bogus call.

If the authorities acted in good faith belief that the call was valid - that people were in danger of having criminal acts perpetrated on them - then the raid was justified.

Some of the later actions... well, let's remember the Waco fiasco, originally based on bogus firearms charges, was later justified to prevent child abuse (Janet Reno). That isn't even in federal jurisdiction!

May 20, 2008 5:08 PM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

If the authorities were acting in good faith, the logical response would have been to go knock on the door of the specific house or houses where the alleged abuse was occurring. Raiding the entire settlement is like roping off a town or a neighborhood based on the allegation that one of the residents committed a crime and doing a door-to-door search for evil-doers.

That is, it looks like the original complaint was used as an excuse to act against an entire community, with little concern for the niceties of the Fourth Amendment ("no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized").

And what's with the SWAT tactics? Have we now reached the point where every allegation of a crime -- including statutory rape -- must now be investigated with battering rams and machine guns?

By the way, I agree with you completely about the "child abuse" allegations in the Waco case. That was weak stuff, indeed, and Janet Reno got away with it.

May 21, 2008 9:09 AM  

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