In a politically volatile era where parties are battling for control of everything from the presidential seat of 2008 to the hearts and votes of minorities, it is no wonder that marriage has become such a hot-button issue. Should we or shouldn’t we allow same sex marriage? What constitutes a marriage that is recognized by the government on both a state and national level? Whose job is it to define the terms of these marriages?
Just when we thought we’d gotten it all out on the table, along comes Warren S. Jeffs, a polygamist sect leader from Utah who is being accused of two counts of rape for allegedly forcing a fourteen-year-old girl to marry and have intercourse with her cousin. The trial is set for April 23, 2007 and if convicted, Jeffs could face life in prison.
Again, Americans are faced with the sticky issue of marriage and the once thought-to-be-common values that define it. This case has received more national attention than many other polygamous marriages, all of which are considered illegal, but many of which are still allowed to quietly exist unchallenged. This heightened recognition is due in part to the young age of the girl when she was married and her willingness to speak out against the marriage.
Here is why I, personally, have become especially concerned about this case and believe that others should sit up and take notice. First, we must understand that Jeffs is from a fundamentalist sect that draws on Mormon roots, but it does not by any means represent the entire Mormon religion. In fact, The modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints disavows polygamy, and has done so since 1890. There are also many cases of polygamous families who profess their contentment and have made the choice to enter into their marriages willingly.
However, this case is important to me for two reasons. First, depending on how far this case is taken, it may well serve to set a precedent in the way polygamy cases are handled in the future. True, Jeffs is being tried for rape, but the nature of his role in the marriage as a simple orchestrator opens up the door to larger prosecutions of persons participating in any form in polygamist unions. Depending on the reach of this case both culturally and legally, we could well see its effects bleeding into our next elections and the ongoing debates concerning marriage as an institution.
Finally, the girl in this case was only fourteen when she entered into this marriage, and if she is now speaking out against this marriage, despite her religious affiliations, it is our duty to listen to her as we would listen to any young woman who has endured a sexually unwelcome experience. Should we judge the polygamist lifestyle as a whole based on Jeffs case? No. I don’t believe we should. But we as women and as Americans need to open our ears to the possible implications of this case and to the protests of a woman who should have been granted the same right as any other child to freedom from sexual persecution.