Behind the Cloak of Polygamy

The full text of this article appears in the Summer issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands and by subscription from

In 1953, Gov. John Howard Pyle of Arizona tried to rescue 263 children living in the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist community of Short Creek, near the Utah border of Arizona. His effort failed, as the press and public sentiment turned against him. Children who had been removed from their families were returned, and the governor's political career effectively ended.

In the 55 years since the abortive Short Creek incident, politicians in Arizona and Utah have been reluctant to challenge the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamy-practicing group that broke away from the Mormon Church (formally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). But in early April, a similar sort of child-rescue effort took place, this time at the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas -- reportedly the new headquarters of the FLDS. Texas child-welfare authorities, acting on an abuse complaint from an anonymous caller, eventually removed more than 450 children from the property and put them in foster care.

The women of the Yearning for Zion Ranch quickly became subjects of empathy, even if their long, high-necked prairie dresses and sky-high bouffant hairdos were disconcerting. No one is immune to the grief of a parent having her child wrenched away, or can fail to be moved by the sight of children taken from what seems to be their safe maternal haven.

And the FLDS knows this. The group immediately launched a public relations campaign -- complete with photo ops of the sad-looking mothers -- accusing Texas Child Protective Services of violating their parental rights and for targeting them on account of religion. But my own research, which includes interviews with dozens of women, adolescents, children and men who formerly lived or are currently living in fundamentalist Mormon and polygamous Christian families, shows the very dark reality of these communities. It uncovers how claims of religious and parental rights can be a cloak for abusive and criminal behavior. And it suggests that deference to religion and parental rights must sometimes be overweighed in favor of protecting the safety and human rights of women and children.

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