CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Remarks on the 2008 FLDS Raid

by Cardell K. Jacobson (Professor of Sociology, Brigham Young University)
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

Public interest in fundamentalist polygamous[1] groups spiked dramatically in April of 2008 when Texas law enforcement officers and officials from other Texas State agencies surrounded the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) ranch, the compound of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) in Eldorado, Texas[2]. Until the raid, few people outside of Utah and the immediate area of the ranch had heard of the seclusive group or their compound, which sprawled across the rangeland of west-central Texas.  Carrying a search warrant for “Sarah Jessop” and her alleged husband “Dale Barlow,” a slew of State and CPS officials arrived at the ranch, accompanied by helicopters, an armed personnel carrier, and SWAT teams armed with automatic weapons.  The officials were authorized to search the ranch and seize any records regarding marriages. They never found Sarah Jessop because she didn’t exist.   They eventually found Barlow in Arizona, but he maintained that he did not know a “Sarah Jessop.”  Further, the investigation showed that he could not have been in Texas when “Sarah” was allegedly there.  Nevertheless, the agencies in Texas removed more than 139 FLDS mothers and 463 children[3] from the compound.  The State and Child Protection Services (CPS) argued that they were justified in removing the residents because they were all at risk from predatory males who were grooming the girls for underage marriage.  They also treated the entire ranch “one household.”   Because of its unprecedented size and unusual circumstances, the seizure garnered local, national, and international media attention. 

Six weeks after the raid, on May 22, the Texas Third Court of Appeals in Austin, Texas, ruled unanimously that the removal of the children was illegal.  The court wrote that “the existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the department’s witnesses, by itself, does not put children of the FLDS parents in physical danger.”   The State Supreme Court upheld the decision of the appeals court and ordered the return of all the children.  The FLDS won the return of their children, but not without conditions.  The State Supreme Court allowed the lower courts to impose restrictions.  The FLDS parents had to agree to have their children’s pictures taken and to be fingerprinted, to not allow women younger than eighteen to marry, and to not interfere with the ongoing investigation.  The CPS retained the right to visit the homes of the children, to have access to the residence of each child for unannounced home visits, and to examine the children.  The examination could include medical, psychological, or psychiatric evaluation.    The parents had to provide their addresses and contact information and need to provide seven-days notice if the child’s residence was to be changed.  Also, all parents were required to attend parenting classes. 

The raid and seizure of the women and children raised many questions.  What is this group, and what is it doing in the isolated rangeland in western Texas? If the men of the group were the perpetrators, why were the women and children, even infants, the ones who were seized?  Why were mothers, who were not accused of anything, separated from their children? 

Many other questions arose, not about the group itself, but about how the State of Texas handled the case.  How could the state group all the cases together into one mass hearing?  Rumors that lawyers and those appointed as guardians ad litem were sometimes denied access to their clients, that fathers were denied requests to visit their minor children, and that the state had ordered DNA testing of all the children raised questions about the state’s ethics.  When the original call from the fictitious Sarah Jessop that sparked the raid turned out to be a hoax from a mentally unstable individual not affiliated with the FLDS group, the CPS scrambled to justify its raid. The FLDS, on the other hand, attempted to present their own story to the public by unprecedented appearances on national TV and by construction of web pages.

The average American has little knowledge of the origins of the FLDS sect, and often associates it with the Salt Lake City headquartered Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)—the church known colloquially as the “Mormons.” The LDS Church has fought to distance itself from this group and other polygamous groups.  The FLDS and other polygamous groups are schismatic groups that broke with the main LDS Church early in the 20th century.  Though most all the modern American polygamous groups trace their origins to the main LDS Church, the main LDS Church officially disavowed polygamy in 1896 and again in 1906.[4]  The FLDS and several other groups formed in defiance to the main church’s repudiation of polygamy.  The dissidents viewed polygamy as central to salvation and believed that the LDS Church leaders had strayed from the true teachings and become apostate.  Many of the descendant groups are located in southern Utah and Northern Arizona, but others live throughout the intermountain west from Canada in the North to Mexico in the South.  Still other fundamentalist polygamists live independent of these groups.  The FLDS group in Texas is part of the one of the larger polygamist groups, thought it is closely inter-twined with the other groups, particularly those in southern Utah. 

The raid of the FLDS YFZ compound was not the first time the State of Texas had gone after fundamentalist religious groups within its borders.  Fifteen years earlier, in February of 1993, agents from several police agencies including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and the Federal Bureau raided the Mount Carmel Center of followers of David Koresh.  That raid, also known as the Branch Davidian raid, resulted in the loss of several dozen lives.  Unlike the FLDS seizure, the justification for the Branch Davidian raid was the possession of illegal guns and weapons materials, although charges of child abuse and polygamy also were used to justify the invasion

Religious groups in other states have been the recipients of similar attention from law enforcement and child protective services.  The FLDS experienced similar raids in 1935, 1943, and again 1953 in Short Creek, a community that straddled the Utah-Arizona border.[5]  The community has since been renamed as the towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah.  In the 1953 raid 36 men were arrested for practicing polygamy.  The raid, however, turned into a public relations nightmare and all the families were reunited within two years. 

A second group known as The Family International (also formerly known as the Children of God) has been raided in several different countries.  The raids on this religious group bring to light many ethical and moral issues about the treatment of “fringe” religious groups in our country. 

Sociologists argue that such groups help define the boundaries of what is acceptable in society and what is not.  In that sense, the prosecution of these groups tells us as much about society as it does about the groups. 

Sociologists also note that the fastest-growing religious groups in societies are those that have some tension with the dominant society.  If a group has no distinctive qualities, if they have no tension with society, they often decline.  Followers are drawn to groups that oppose the secular trends of society; such groups provide the adherents a cause, and meaning and identity to their lives.  The FLDS, Family International, the Branch Davidians, and other groups all provide this identity and meaning for the adherents. 

The FLDS illustrates these processes because of their several unique characteristics.  The more obvious characteristics, aside from the practice of polygamy, are the dress and hair styles of the women in the community.  An analysis of the Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona community previously known as “Shortcreek” reveals other characteristics, however.   They are a young population (61.6 percent of the population are below the age of 18 compared to 25.7 percent of the United States in the 2000 census).[6]  They also have a much larger family size (7.75 compared to 3.13 in Utah and 2.59 in the United States as a whole).  They report a low divorce rates (2.9 percent compared to 9.3 percent in Utah). 

Educational attainment is not high in this community.  Only 71.5 percent have graduated from high school compared to 87.7 percent in Utah and 80.4 percent in the United States.  Fewer than five percent have graduated from college.  These descriptors are unusual, but they also reflect typical rural communities where many young men in particular are involved in farming or manual trades.

There is a deficit of males in the population.  This may due to some men and boys being forced out of the population, or it may be due to a higher number of women (compared to men)  joining the community, or some combination of these and other factors.  Some males may also be elsewhere working in construction or other industries. 

Some wonder how a polygamous group can maintain a high rate of plural marriages.  This can happen if the population is growing rapidly.  The FLDS community has over 3 times more people in the late teenage years (ages 15-19) than it has in the 35-39 year-old group.  If men aged 35-39 marry women aged 15-19, then each man could have at least three wives. 

Ironically, then, the raid on the FLDS compound in Texas will likely increase in-group loyalty, rather than diminishing it.  Groups such as the FLDS, the Family International, and even the Branch Davidians who had many people killed in their raid, tend to rally around core beliefs and practices in response to societal pressures against them. 

[1] Technically, fundamentalist groups in the United States practice polygyny, the practice of a man having more than one wife.  Polygamy is a broader term describing all marriages that involve several individuals.  Throughout this anthology we have chosen to describe the marriages as polygamous in keeping with the common parlance of the media.  

[2] The group began building the compound in 2003. Several buildings were constructed in the interim, including a temple, numerous lodges and homes plus numerous out buildings (sheds, storage buildings, etc). 

[3] Eventually two additional children were born while the mothers were sequestered, bringing the total to 465. 

[4] Polygamy continued to be practiced by a few mainstream LDS members in the early part of the 20th century (see Hardy, 1992).  Any involvement and or association with the schismatic groups or practice of polygamy by members of the main LDS Church has been grounds for excommunication since the early part of the 20th century.

[5] See Martha Sonntag Bradley, Kidnapped from that Land : The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists.  Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press.  1993. 

[6] These data were compiled from the 2000 census of the United States by my colleague Tim B. Heaton.