OPINION – If you’ve ever ventured out to the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, one thing you have noticed is there is no lack of children in the polygamous community.
They are everywhere, including, according to a couple of news reports, a property where a tent city popped up on the Utah side of the state line just days after a court served eviction notices on occupants of 16 Hildale homes.
The occupants got caught up in the political-religious war that has been taking place in the community for more than a half-century. This latest round is a result of the refusal of residents in the community to pay a $100-per-month occupancy fee and annual property taxes on the homes, which were once owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the polygamous sect of fundamentalist Mormons led by Warren Jeffs. Jeffs is doing time in a Texas prison for raping two girls, one 12 and the other 15, who he took as spiritual wives.
The state took over the homes, which were paid for and administered by the United Effort Plan Trust – the financial arm of the FLDS church – in 2005 when it became apparent that the state could no longer avoid filing charges against Jeffs.
Conservative estimates at that time put the value of UEP holdings – cash and real property – at about $200 million. It was argued that Jeffs’ “mismanagement” of the UEP could jeopardize, and eventually displace, the FLDS members who lived in the church-owned houses.
“We are doing this for one purpose and one purpose only, to protect the members of the FLDS church,” said Mark Shurtleff, the Utah attorney general at the time. Shurtleff, you must remember, has been a longtime friend of the FLDS, going so far as to state publicly that his office would not prosecute violations of the state’s bigamy/polygamy statutes.
In light of the boatload of criminal charges and allegations leveled against Shurtleff, we are not, in retrospect, surprised by his selective prosecution.
But, flash forward nine years and what have we got? Families displaced because they obeyed Jeffs’ edict not to pay the fees and a bill of more than $5 million Bruce Wisan, who was appointed by the state as special fiduciary over the UEP Trust, laid on the state two years ago.
Legal experts will tell you that the state’s authority to act as it did in this case was sketchy at best; that it was based on the suspicion that Jeffs and his inner circle were liquidating assets and moving cash around as investigators closed in on criminal charges against him in Utah and Arizona; and that a young woman prepared a civil lawsuit against him and the church for forcing her to marry a cousin when she was only 14.
There has never been evidence, however, that those actions were taking place, although tracking FLDS money and resources can be a very tricky and, in some instances, almost impossible task, especially when you understand the business/tax advantages given to religious organizations and the cloak of secrecy that shrouds the FLDS.
It’s why I bristle at the tax exemptions and special benefits handed over to nonprofit organizations. Yes, there are legitimate groups out there, but more often than not, a 501(c)3 designation for an organization sends my antenna up; and I find myself searching the books to see how much money goes to overhead – from paying high-salaried CEOS to settling the light bill – and how much goes into services, research, or whatever else the charitable organization is supposedly set up to provide.
So, I had mixed emotions when the property was seized.
On one hand, I believed that the assets of the UEP Trust were gathered as a result of a judge who recognized the cradle-to-grave brainwashing by an evil man who encouraged and abetted the sexual abuse of young girls, the abuse of young boys put to work in the fields and businesses of the community, the relentless discarding of women’s rights, and the propagation of welfare fraud at the state and federal levels.
On the other, however, there’s this thing called the law, which clearly established Jeffs’ right to milk his followers of all their worldly possessions in return for his pastoral guidance under freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
I still have many questions.
Was the state decree to seize the property legal?
Was it well-intentioned? Given the recent scandals involving Shurtleff, his successor, and Wisan, I have to wonder. It seems that everything that went through the attorney general’s office had a price tag on it.
Was it worth more than $5 million in taxpayer money paid to Wisan to put these people on the street?
And, what happens next?
More than 40 percent of Hildale’s population lives below the poverty level, according to the 2010 census. As a result of the recent action by the state, a growing number of those people will go homeless because they refused to comply, under the direction of Jeffs, with the occupancy fees and property taxes charged by the state.
This means a growing burden on the welfare system, which translates into an undue burden on taxpayers.
This also means that children and women, who, according to reports, make up the majority of those residing in the tent city, are living in unsanitary, inhumane conditions.
If this continues, I would fully expect, and demand, as a matter of fact, that the Utah Department of Child and Family Services intervene. Even though it would undoubtedly put even more strain on social services in the county, we simply cannot allow these children to remain pawns in this ongoing political-religious tug of war between the state and the FLDS.
- Life after Jeffs: Hotel debuts in FLDS prophet’s former mansion
- Judge calls for eviction of FLDS residents delinquent on fees
- Warren Jeffs’ Hildale compound bought by former bodyguard
- On the EDge: Jeffs’ latest edict requires immediate response by law enforcement
- On the EDge: Straightening out the UEP mess? Hardly
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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