October 24, 2008
Debaters argue over Utah's approach to addressing polygamy
Is Utah selling out children or protecting the constitutional rights of its citizens? Those were the clashing views of two speakers debating the state's approach to dealing with polygamy Wednesday at the University of Utah's College of Law. Marci A. Hamilton, of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, charged Utah officials with "whitewashing" problems within polygamous communities. Kirk Torgensen of the Utah Attorney General's Office offered a defense, saying the state has successfully prosecuted individual cases without "throwing a net at a whole bunch of people because they happen to hold certain beliefs."
The two squared off at the 25th annual Jefferson B. Fordham Debate at the University of Utah's College of Law, which posed the question of whether the state should prosecute polygamous parents and remove children from their homes. Hamilton's answer: An emphatic yes, something she praised Texas officials for doing when they raided a ranch occupied by the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
"Religion is no excuse for illegal behavior," Hamilton said. "It's true for polygamists, it's true for priests who abuse children, it's true for churches that cover up child abuse, it's true for churches who permit children to die for medically treatable illness." Hamilton said Utah and Arizona officials had adopted a "policy of appeasement" exemplified by their efforts to work with polygamous communities, which, she said, are inherently abusive to children. Child abuse is easily hidden, she said, but polygamous behavior is not.
"It is easy to figure out who is engaging in polygamy," Hamilton said. "You just have to figure out who is going into which house. . . . If you know that even a small percentage of individuals in these circumstances are prone to abuse children, why wouldn't you enforce the criminal law?"
Hamilton said Utah has the worst record in the nation for tackling problems like clergy abuse, citing a recent ruling that tossed out a case brought by two Utah men who alleged they were abused by aCatholic priest as an example.
Unless proponents of polygamy can use the democratic process to change laws outlawing the lifestyle, then "what they are doing is criminal, not just illegal, but criminal," Hamilton said. [Mark Godsey]
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