The last time we checked in on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the nasty polygamist cult that ruled over two towns on the border of Utah and Arizona, they had fallen on hard times.
Their one-time leader, Warren Jeffs, is serving a life sentence. A steady stream of people were walking away from the cult. And eleven high-ranking members had been arrested for attempting to defraud the food-stamp program. I have a late update on that: disappointingly, almost all the defendants took plea bargains and got punishments so light they don’t even qualify as a slap on the wrist.
The major exception was Lyle Jeffs, the newest leader of the cult, who slipped out of an ankle-monitoring bracelet and went on the run as soon as he was charged. He was recaptured last year in South Dakota, penniless and living out of a car, and has pled guilty to charges that should get him several years in prison alongside his brother Warren.
But there’s good news to report. The FLDS stronghold of Hildale held municipal elections last year, and the town’s new mayor is Donia Jessop: a woman, and more importantly, an ex-member of the FLDS! Both are firsts in the town’s history.
Jessop’s family was one of the dozens excommunicated from the church nearly a decade ago as religious leaders pushed out possible rivals under the guise of God finding them “unworthy” or unclean. Jessop refused to split up her family on the church’s orders after some relatives were deemed worthy of church membership and others were not, so she left the community with her husband and 10 children. After years of practicing the faith and being raised in the polygamous life, she abandoned her religion and moved her family 35 miles away to a town called St. George.
Working at a nonprofit social-service agency called the Learning Center for Families, she learned about the importance of education (which the FLDS leaders denounced, banning books and the internet and going so far as to close the town’s only school). Finally, as she saw the devastating harm wrought by the cult’s ideology, she decided to return to her former home and see what help she could offer to the other ex-members who were still living there:
Jessop formed the Short Creek Community Alliance, a group of non-church members who were desperate for change. They knew the only way to get the town into recovery was to change the town’s government — and plenty of people were eager to see the church “dictatorship” finally overturned. Jessop decided to run for the mayoral seat against the church-sponsored incumbent Philip Barlow.
It seems like an impossible goal: a woman and apostate, running for mayor of a town completely controlled by an authoritarian patriarchal cult, where elections were rubber stamps by the church leadership and the police acted as an arm of the cult to harass and coerce ex-members.
But things are changing in Hildale, for two reasons. One is that the Justice Department won a far-reaching lawsuit last year against Hildale and its sister town, Colorado City, for pervasive violations of their residents’ civil rights:
U.S. District Judge H. Russell Holland’s order, issued yesterday, adopts findings made by a jury last year that the Colorado City Marshals Office engaged in a long-standing pattern of abuses that included false arrests, unreasonable seizures of property, discriminatory policing on the basis of religion, and violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment….In addition to its verdict on the police-misconduct claim, the jury found that the defendants engaged in a pattern or practice of housing discrimination against persons who were not members of Warren Jeffs’ faction of the FLDS. The jury found that the defendants had used their municipal authority to coerce, intimidate, or interfere with individuals seeking housing, discriminated in the provision of municipal services, and denied housing to non-FLDS members.
As a result of the lawsuit, the courts appointed a federal monitor to oversee the local government and police for at least ten years, hampering their ability to run a troublesome apostate who doesn’t know her place out of town.
Second, Hildale’s demographics are changing. The church leadership has excommunicated so many people, Donia Jessop estimates “90% of Hildale is now ex-FLDS or non-members“. The FLDS is no longer the unbeatable voting bloc they once were, and the election results proved it. Besides its new mayor, Hildale now has three city council members who are non-members or ex-members. (The Arizona public radio station KJZZ has an excellent series, Short Creek, about the election and its aftermath.)
Needless to say, the old guard isn’t happy about the results. After the election, six of the town’s seven employees quit, plus nine members of other town boards, all current FLDS members. One wrote in his resignation letter, “My religion teaches me that I should not follow a woman for a leader in a public or family capacity,” adding that he also refused to associate with “apostates”.
And that’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. It can only help to sweep these fossils out and replace them with people who care about the public good. Let the FLDS dwindle and fade into the past, while the new mayor opens up the town to the world:
The mayor said she’s working on grants and ways to boost economic development and tourism in Hildale. She’s been working with state tourism officials to increase visitation. (Colorado City recently opened its first brewery, named “The Edge of the World.”) Mayor Jessop said she’s seeking to take advantage of Hildale’s proximity to Zion National Park.
“We’re developing 17 new trails,” she said. “ATV, horse riding, four-wheelers, walking and hiking.” (source)
I’d make just one suggestion for the new tourism campaign: Make it a selling point that Warren Jeffs’ former compound is now a bed and breakfast. If I’m ever in the area, I’d make it a point to stay there.