American Theocracy?: Lawsuit Alleges Utah and Ariz. Towns Enforce Religious Edicts As Law

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, which brought the suit, elected community officials use their authority to enforce the edicts of disgraced church leader Warren Jeffs.

A civil rights lawsuit alleges that the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) has imposed theocratic rule in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

Collectively known as the Short Creek community, the twin towns are considered to be strongholds for the polygamous Mormon offshoot. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, which brought the suit, elected community officials use their authority to enforce the edicts of disgraced church leader Warren Jeffs.

That name might sound familiar. Jeffs, the hereditary president of FLDS, is also a convicted sex offender. He’s currently serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for his “marriages” to two girls aged 12 and 15. And although he claims to have relinquished the role, most residents of Short Creek still consider him their prophet and believe he speaks for God.

Because of his link to the Lord, Jeffs retains considerable political influence – a fact that the community’s attorneys have steadfastly denied. But new evidence released by the DOJ make it difficult for Short Creek officials to conceal the true extent of his power.

Letters published by DOJ attorneys reveal that Short Creek’s mayor, George Allred, regularly wrote to Jeffs seeking direct instructions on the management of the community’s affairs. 

“As my spiritual leader I write to you today with joy and rejoicing in the Lord our God, even Jesus Christ,” one letter began. “It is my firm belief that you have all rights, power and ability to get the very word of God for all who desire it.”

And Allred sought the word of God often. He sought it, for example, when the role of police chief became vacant.

“If the Lord had someone he would like to have in that position,” Allred wrote Jeffs, “it would be very helpful to get his sure word on who he desires to occupy that position.”

Allred also welcomed the Lord’s opinion about which community members should attend the police academy. That’s a decision of some import: evidence suggests that the community’s police force really functioned as church security.

The letters aren’t old, either. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the first is dated June 6, 2012. It’s obvious that despite the Jeffs’ history of abuse Allred still believes that he’s a prophet, possessed of supernatural gifts that entitle him to an unelected but powerful position.

And whatever Jeffs might say about his role as prophet, it’s undeniable that he continues to exercise power.

He hasn’t limited himself to decisions on the Short Creek police force. In fact, he’s issued other, stranger edicts. From prison, he banned toys for FLDS children. He ordered the construction of a new, multi-million dollar compound designed explicitly to be his residence. And he decided that 15 men should father all the children in the community.

These edicts, like all of Jeffs’ demands, have been enforced by Allred and his colleagues in Short Creek’s government. To the people of Short Creek, Jeffs’ word has the force of law. It’s essentially a tiny theocracy operating within American territory.

The state’s suit further alleges that Short Creek officials openly discriminated against non-FLDS residents. In a deposition for the state, an ex-FLDS member described coordinated attempts by the church’s leadership to prevent non-FLDS residents from owning land in the community. The same defector accused officials of holding “block elections” featuring hand-picked candidates.                                                                                                               

Defector testimony, backed by Allred’s correspondence with Jeffs, provides significant support for the DOJ’s case. By enforcing Jeffs’ edicts as law, Short Creek leaders have committed a flagrant violation of the First Amendment. It’s particularly unconscionable given the sect’s history of sexual abuse.

The words of a convicted sex offender should never be elevated above the laws that brought justice to his victims, no matter what anyone believes about his relationship to God.

As the Tribune put it, “The lawsuit alleges the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints essentially runs the twin towns, not the elected leaders, not the civil authorities and not all that subtly. If true, it means the separation of church and state – a constitutional bedrock of pluralistic America – is nonexistent, replaced by an iron-fisted theocracy in which Jeffs’ edicts are enforced above the law.”

This is unacceptable in the United States. Here’s hoping the DOJ’s suit is successful. It’s time for some separation in Short Creek.