Nancy Gibbs has done a great job in the latest Time of discussing the agonizing details involved in the trial of Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. Jeffs is being tried as an accomplice to rape on the grounds that he insisted on a girl, then 14, marrying her first cousin, despite her weeping protests that she was not ready. Jeffs' defense attorneys argue he cannot be held accountable for what went on in the newlywed couple's bedroom. Here's part of an early paragraph that goes to the heart of the case:
So this was really a case about what happens when the state's interest in protecting children runs up against a church's right to practice its beliefs, however repugnant others may find them. ... Sitting in court amid the throngs of reporters and silent church members was Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff, a Republican and a practicing Mormon, come to offer moral support to his team. He has called Jeffs "a religious tyrant, a demagogue" with an "absolute disregard for the laws of the nation, of the state." But charges involving polygamy are notoriously hard to prove, especially in a sect so secluded, so protective and so intent on making its own rules about what constitutes a marriage.
Gibbs provides the important background, of course, that in 1890 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints repudiated polygamy. That led to the advent of splinter groups such as the FLDS, for whose members polygamy is as important a practice as, say, monogamy is for nearly all churches. The presence of Utah's attorney general should be no real surprise.
Some of the details about Jeffs are colorful ("Police found $53,000 in cash as well as cell phones, wigs and laptops" upon his capture), while others sound too rich to be taken at face value ("He was reported to have gone for days without food or water and knelt so long in prayer that he got ulcers on his knees").
Another paragraph distills the maddening essence of this case -- both in the subject's reluctance to engage the case's moral questions and in his fair question about societal ambivalence on polygamy:
"I'm not saying polygamists are right or wrong, but what they are doing is part of their culture, their religion," argues Randy Shaw, owner of the Little Professor bookstore in town. "I don't think a 14-year-old should be married to her cousin, but you have to look at their culture and the fact that we have allowed it to go on for hundreds of years. With this trial, we are mixing government with religion. My question is, Why all of a sudden now? It's been going on forever here."
Finally, Gibbs scores bonus points for mentioning the detail that Jeffs has inspired "more mainstream-minded pluralists of the Big Love school to charge that he was giving the practice a bad name." So who are you going to believe: Big Love, or your lying eyes?
Photo: The new FLDS temple under construction in El Dorado, Texas (from Wikipedia Commons).