Civil Liberties

This Polygamist Thing of Ours

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At a Senate hearing yesterday, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) described polygamous sects such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) as a "form of organized crime," saying they have created a "web of criminal conduct that includes welfare fraud, tax evasion, massive corruption and strong-arm tactics." Reid, who has introduced a bill that would establish a Justice Department task force on polygamy and "assist victims of crimes committed by polygamist groups," added: "I am not saying that they are the same thing as the crime syndicates that used to run Las Vegas. But they engage in an ongoing pattern of serious crimes that we ignore at our peril."

This is the same sort of indiscriminate accusation that led to wholesale removal of children from the FLDS' Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, last April. It may well be that some members of the church married and/or had sex with underage girls. This week a Texas grand jury indicted FLDS leader Warren Jeffs (already in prison for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin) and four followers on sexual assault charges. A sixth FLDS member was indicted for failing to report child abuse. But as the Texas Supreme Court concluded, evidence of some underage marriages does not mean every FLDS parent is guilty of child abuse. Likewise, the fact that some members of polygamous groups have committed welfare fraud or failed to pay taxes does not mean every member has, let alone that membership in such a group is enough to make one a criminal.

Reid, a Mormon, should understand why it's a bad idea for the federal government to start picking on unconventional religious groups. Instead he seems eager to persecute heretics.