Strange justice in Utah

September 21, 2007|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- I'm glad I didn't fall for the latest Internet hoax.

MarryOurDaughter.com? Hello? Did the millions who clicked onto this site actually think there were parents out there putting a bridal price on the head of their 15-year-old Ashlee ($37,500) or 16-year-old Kristin ($49,995)?

The hoax proved to be the brainchild of John Ordover, a Brooklyn man practicing his viral marketing skills. It was Mr. Ordover who hyped this site as an "introduction service assisting those following the biblical tradition of arranging marriages for their daughters."

But before you deep-six your most paranoid fantasy about the arranged marriages of young girls, let us turn to reality. In a courtroom in St. George, Utah, there is a defendant named Warren Jeffs who surely regards himself as a celestial matchmaker.

Mr. Jeffs is the autocrat and reigning prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamous community of about 10,000 that regards itself as the one true Mormon faith. It survives, much to the embarrassment of mainstream Mormons - who gave up polygamy in 1890 - and much to the horror of the state.

Mr. Jeffs is either deeply creepy or downright evil, depending on how you label religious leaders who consider themselves the voice of God and marry multiple women, including 30 of their late father's youngest widows. But the man is not on trial for being a polygamist, let alone a creep. As the judge and prosecutor told the jury, this case is not about polygamy.

Mr. Jeffs is being tried as an accessory to rape. He's charged with intentionally aiding the sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl by her husband.

To hear the alleged victim, known only as Jane Doe, describe her marriage is to be as deeply saddened as the jury was. After resisting Mr. Jeffs' order to marry her 19-year-old first cousin, she found herself at the altar, head hanging, forcing out the words, "OK, I do." After refusing sex, she went back to Mr. Jeffs for counsel and was told to "repent" and be "obedient." And so the girl who didn't know what sex was or where children came from says she was forced to submit to her husband.

Did this teenager make her own choice? We forget how the rules governing consent have changed. Conflicting state laws now navigate between a girl's sexual maturity and her vulnerability. In many states, including Utah, a girl can marry with her parents' permission at a younger age than she can have sex.

But this case raises a different question about consent. How much power did the religious leader wield over the 14-year-old? If you refused to marry the chosen husband, she testified, you would "lose your chance at salvation." How could she refuse to obey the husband who was "my ticket into heaven"?

No, polygamy is not on trial. But its history is interwoven with questions of consent. Opponents of plural marriage in the 19th century included women's rights advocates who equated polygamy with slavery. No mature woman, they believed, would voluntarily enslave herself. In the late 20th century, the idea arose that consenting adults could make their own sexual arrangements from serial monogamy to, well, polygamy.

Indeed, at this trial, FLDS women described themselves as "empowered." But the view of polygamy as just another lifestyle choice has been countered by the growing evidence of communities rife with abuse.

Jane Doe's forced marriage falls easily into the moral category of child abuse. But I'm troubled by the charge that Mr. Jeffs is an accessory to felony rape. University of Utah law professor Daniel Medwed calls it "an ill-fitting suit draped over this case." I'm afraid he's right.

The argument is that Mr. Jeffs told Jane Doe to submit or be damned. It will be hard enough to prove that he was explicit in encouraging rape by her husband. For that matter, how can you convict a man as an accessory to rape when the alleged rapist himself - the husband - hasn't been charged?

This case highlights what it's like to be a girl imprisoned in the FLDS world. Have no tolerance for a community, even a religious one, that so estranges its young from shared values, including liberty.

But this charge doesn't fit Warren Jeffs' moral trespasses. It's too much. And way, way, too little.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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