Mero Moment: Jeffs And The Limits Of Religious Liberty

This week I want to talk about religious liberty. In an era of civil rights, with everyone seemingly clamoring for their own version, we forget that civil rights are not absolute. We forget that just because we have a right doesn’t mean other rights disappear and that we very often have to choose between competing rights.

Warren Jeffs, the now very infamous leader of the FLDS polygamous sect, just learned this lesson. In Jeffs’ world, religious liberty has no limitations nor does it have any competing rights. In his world, religious liberty means anything he says or does. The FLDS is an apostate group of historically disaffected and excommunicated Mormons. While there are a few similarities between the FLDS cult and the Mormon faith, one of the big differences is that the Mormon faith operates in mainstream society. In fact, not to do so cuts against perhaps the most important purpose of Mormonism: spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In Warren Jeffs’ world we see the opposite effect and influence. We see isolation and exclusion in the name of religious liberty. And in that isolation Jeffs has committed acts unthinkable by true men and women of faith. Religious liberty exists in America precisely to enrich our culture and to benefit our neighbors in need. Religious liberty exists to remind us to always be our better selves. In a free society, religious liberty has the added effect of reminding every citizen that their rights were not created by men but by God.

The Warren Jeffs case is not a matter of religious liberty according to those high standards. In fact, Jeffs acted the opposite in every case. Our culture wasn’t benefited by his actions; he lived in isolation. His followers, our neighbors, weren’t advantaged economically; many exist on welfare. Jeffs didn’t act his better self; he raped and molested children. And he certainly didn’t remind anyone that their rights came from God; he believed he was the maker of rights.

Secularists and atheists use the Warren Jeffs of the world to denigrate religion in general. Of course, they do so because they have no appreciation for religion in general and without any understanding of true religion they fail to discern good from evil and then they, too, not unlike Warren Jeffs, fail mankind.

The actions of Warren Jeffs were evil. Living in isolation, under his heavy hand of unrighteousness, Jeffs’ followers are complicit in his actions. Those are grown men and women, the parents of the children that Jeffs molested, who stood by while personal atrocities were being committed. I always have believed that state government should take a cautious approach with its polygamous communities. I still believe this. That said, the FLDS community in Utah should be forced into daylight and its works and lives be placed under public scrutiny. No longer can it hide behind its claims of religious liberty. No longer can it be given the benefit of the doubt.

If Warren Jeffs is evil, so too are his followers who have stood by and permitted him to behave despicably. Defenders of any civil right have an equal obligation to police that right for the benefit of individuals and society. We don’t allow atrocities in the name of racial rights or ethnic rights and we shouldn’t now accept them in the name of religious liberty. The Warren Jeffs/FLDS case is that moment in time, despite how much we cherish our religious liberties, that Utah society is justified to demand that this cult’s doors be kicked open to the light of day. Whatever was good within its walls will endure and whatever was evil will be disbanded.

If the Warren Jeffs case has taught us anything, I hope it’s taught us that true religion benefits a free society and that even our most important liberties have their limitations.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.