Sunday, April 20, 2008

Religious Freedom and Separation of Church & State

Two weeks ago, on April 3, Texas authorities raided the Polygamist Yearn for Zion (YFZ) Ranch in Eldorado, Texas that is owned by the breakaway Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). 416 children of various ages were removed and (Texas State) court proceeding is underway to determine who shall have the custody of the children to protect them from alleged abusive environment and practice. The basic issue is the doctrine followed by the FLDS sect (and a small number of splinter groups) brainwashed underage girls younger than 18 to accept “arranged” polygamous marriage to older men, and boys to practice polygyny and abuse when they grow up.

A week ago, we happened to be in Salt Lake City to attend a wedding that brought back some memories. My first encounter with Mormons (or more accurately LDS, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, distinct from splinter groups like FLDS) was during my college senior year when I was staying at my sister’s apartment in Taipei city which is two blocks away from a Mormon church. I often saw neatly dressed young Mormon missionaries in white shirts and black pants merrily riding down the streets in high bikes. Then 32 years ago, my wife and I visited Salt Lake City briefly during our “make-up honeymoon”, on our way back to Berkeley after staying at the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. One of the “must visit” places is of course the magnificent Mormon Temple and headquarter of LDS, built from 1853 through 1893. In addition to the beautiful and immense organ of the church, I still remember vividly till today the statements etched on the wall that remind the Mormons of the persecutions and hardships they had endured since founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1830 in upper New York through the migration led by Brigham Young to the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847 (Photo on theright is taken from the Antelope Island of the Great Salt Like).

According to various statistics (see e.g. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), there are estimated 3.7 millions Mormons out of the 220+ millions U.S. adults (18 years and older) and there are over 12 millions Mormons worldwide as a result of successful missions over the years. Further, about 60% of the ~2.7 millions of Utah residents today are Mormons although the percentage appears to be decreasing over the decades. While Mormon is a distant 3rd (1.7%), percentage wise in U.S. adult religious affiliation, after Protestant (51.3%) and Catholic (23.9%), it has been under the spotlight from time to time in U.S. history, partly due to its concentrated populations in a few areas and thus the exhibited local political and economical power. One latest example was Mitt Romney’s 2008 Republican presidential candidacy who was a governor of Massachusetts and is a Mormon. Of course the most event was the LDS leadership’s decision in 1890 to obey the law and suspended its practice of polygyny (no, they never practiced polyandry which is also a form of polygamy). That happened only after decades of legal battles, began with the 1874 test case that asserted the First Amendment right and separation of Church and State, and ended when the federal government announced that they would start to seize the assets of the temples, following the supreme court’s ruling and reaffirmation of the rights of government to take punitive measures against the church and individuals. One can’t help but wonder is there something fundamentally wrong with polygyny or polygamy in general? Where should the line be drawn? Why and when should government spend its time and energy in setting up anti-polygamy laws and enforce them rigorously?

The reality is many social and religious practices do evolve and change over time for many reasons including political and economical ones. Adoption and rejection of Polygamy is no exception; for instance, Roman practice and laws had a lot to do with the prohibition of polygyny by majority of Jewish and Christian. Indeed it has been practiced in various places and times by some groups with varying degree of objection/acceptance or tolerated by the rest of the society. This could be considered as respect for religious freedom or tradition provided it does not do harms physically or mentally to oneself or others!

What most of people would find unacceptable and intolerable in the FLDS (and some other) case is the cult-like practice whereby (male, in this case) leaders hide behind religion and use the name of God and selected part of scriptures with literally interpretation to brainwash and indoctrinate sect members including children. It deprives the individuals of the sect every human right I can think of and it is simply wrong and immoral. It is particularly offensive as they impose their wills on children who would never be given a chance to grow up with skills that allow them to think independently and critically. It is the worst form of abuse in my opinion – the deprivation of advanced thinking ability that distinguishes human beings from animals.

No doubt the Texas YFZ Ranch case will be challenging legally and no doubt a lot of harms have already been done to children that could be irreversible. We must make it clear however such abusive cult-like behavior will not be tolerated. We must take aggressive legislative and legal actions against those who abuse the children mentally and intellectually, not just physically. Religious groups who do not respect the laws should be stripped off their status at minimum (thus tax and financial support by the society!). That is the true spirit of the separation of church and state. The law of the land must be followed by all but the dead!

Talk to you soon!

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