High court cases not about religion

Two recent Utah Supreme Court cases have put polygamy back in the spotlight -- that is, if the controversial topic ever exited the stage.

Early last week, the state's highest court upheld polygamist Tom Green's conviction on child-rape charges involving a 13-year-old girl. Later in the week, justices heard arguments in the Rodney Holm appeal. A jury convicted the former Hildale police officer of bigamy and of having sex with his then-16-year-old spiritual wife when Holm was 32 years old.

The attorneys for Green and Holm did an admirable job of arguing their cases. They raised questions regarding jurisdiction and other factors in an attempt to clear their clients.

But one of the most fascinating arguments is the issue of prosecuting people for practicing their religious beliefs. That rationale provokes some thought because all of us hold tight to the rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. None of us wants the government telling us what to do, especially regarding faith and beliefs.

It's true that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- to which Holm belongs -- steps outside the norm with the tenet of polygamy. Most religious movements today recognize that marriage should be between one man and one woman. And those involved with the gay-rights movement almost solely believe that marriage should be between two people.

The fundamental question is should the government care what's going on inside a family's home as long as people aren't being hurt? As long as the relationship is consensual, the answer probably is no.

But when minors are involved, people are harmed. In the name of religion or not, that constitutes a crime under the law as it exists today.

Defense attorneys have alleged that the prosecution of these cases is religiously motivated, but that argument doesn't appear to make much sense. The Utah Attorney General's Office and county attorney's offices across the state, sadly, have too many crimes to prosecute and too few resources to carry out their assigned duties. That means they have to put resources where they are needed the most.

Crimes against children certainly qualify as a high priority for anyone sworn to protect the citizens of his or her jurisdiction.

Had Green's sexual partner and Holm's spiritual wife been 18 at the time that the incidents occurred, it's highly unlikely that prosecutors would have pursued their cases. The state's bigamy laws -- coupled with the state Constitution, which bans polygamy -- give prosecutors the tools they need to target multiple-marriage families. They don't because they have other priorities prosecuting people who truly harm society.

The reality is that unless people commit other crimes -- such as welfare fraud or, as in these cases, sexual abuse of a minor -- law enforcement likely won't bother people in polygamist relationships.

But when an adult has sex with a minor, as has been documented in the two recent cases, something must be done.

Those are crimes regardless of a person's religion.

Contact Editor Todd Seifert at 674-6235, or via e-mail at tseifert@thespectrum.com.
Originally published Sunday, February 6, 2005