The Seth Jeffs polygamy trial takes a troubling turn

If you’ve been following the news of the latest trial involving the family and followers of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs you probably know that the proceedings are drawing toward a close in Salt Lake City this month. Unlike previous cases where Warren Jeffs and others were accused of rape, child abuse and a laundry list of other horrors related to polygamy, this one focuses on the more pedestrian charge of food stamp abuse. Multiple residents of one polygamist compound were signed up to receive food stamp assistance and are accused of “sharing” these benefits among the community in violation of federal guidelines. This week, Warren’s brother Seth took the stand to argue that the idea of communal sharing of resources was part and parcel of their faith. (AT&T Live News)

A polygamous sect leader who is among a group of people accused of carrying out a multiyear food stamp fraud scheme said Tuesday not sharing the food would prevent him and others from living their religion and being prepared for heaven.

Seth Jeffs’ testimony came as he and 10 other suspects accused of fraud and money laundering tried to persuade a Utah judge they were following religious tenets of communal living, not breaking the law.

His testimony offered a rare glimpse into the mindset of the secretive group that practices religious principles rooted in the early Mormonism of the 19th century. Members of the group based in a remote community on the Utah-Arizona border don’t usually talk with outsiders at the behest of their leaders.

Every time the various charges against the sect leaders come up I find them distressing in two very different ways. On the one hand, some of these polygamist compounds seem to clearly be horror shows. The evidence produced against Warren Jeffs showing that children who are barely at the age of puberty were “married” off to old men was enraging. There also seems to be a horrible air of mind control going on in these very closeted societies.

But at the same time, at least for the adults who are involved, there’s an uncomfortable sense that the rights of some of the residents are being infringed upon. This falls under the concepts of both religious freedom and the basic right of individuals to live their own lives without government intervention if they’re not harming anyone else. Again, I’m not talking about the children being subjected to sexual abuse, but the adults should be free to exercise their own religious freedom in the privacy of their own homes.

With that in mind, if you read through the current list of charges, it sounds as if the government is really stretching a minor point in order to break up the compounds. These food stamp programs are frequently abused by people and it clearly costs money to the taxpayers, but rarely do you see the charges being taken this seriously with the same heavy judicial hammer being brought down upon the perpetrators. In most of these charges the state isn’t even claiming that people were receiving the food stamp assistance fraudulently. They’re claiming that the benefits were being shared in a communal fashion. The members of the sect are claiming that communal sharing of food and resources is part of their fundamental religious identity, but even if that weren’t the case is it really such a huge deal if the food obtained through the program is pooled among community members?

This just has the smell of a case where the government is looking for a paperwork avenue allowing them to punish people for something they’ve been unable to hit them on through other legal avenues. It’s a bit reminiscent of the government going after Al Capone on tax evasion charges when they couldn’t take him down for the many murders he was responsible for. Of course, in that case everyone was pretty happy to see the mob boss be locked up, but murder and polygamy are pretty far apart. I remain uncomfortable with laws barring polygamy even though I have zero interest in practicing it myself. (Good Lord… I can barely keep up with one wife. What on Earth would I do with five?) But if multiple consenting adults want to enter into a committed relationship it doesn’t seem that the government should be able to stop them.

I would rather see law enforcement investigating and prosecuting actual child abuse cases among the polygamy sects and rescuing at risk children than carrying out some sort of vendetta against them for their religious beliefs in this fashion. The whole case just smells bad.