Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When Rights Clash

The polygamist Warren S. Jeff has been convicted for being an accomplice to the rape of a fourteen-year old girl. His motives for doing this were religious ones:

The girl who was at the center of the case, now 21 and identified as Jane Doe by the court, testified that in 2001 she had been pressed by Mr. Jeffs into a marriage with a 19-year-old cousin she didn't want. Prosecutors said Mr. Jeffs had known that the marriage would lead to nonconsensual sex but pushed the union anyway.

When the verdict was read, just after 2:15 p.m. here, Mr. Jeffs showed no emotion, and his followers, who had filled the back rows of the courtroom, remained silent.

In the deeply isolated rural polygamy communities of Hildale, Utah, and nearby Colorado City, Ariz., residents said the verdict would probably just harden the lines of resistance and resolve.

"That just makes him all the more the prophet," said Isaac Wyler, who was kicked out of the church by Mr. Jeffs in 2004 but has remained in Colorado City.

Benjamin Bistline, a former member of Mr. Jeffs' church, said he thought the verdict would probably shift the balance of the church away from its historic base here in southern Utah to more recently established compounds in Texas, South Dakota and elsewhere.

"They believe that polygamy is god's word, and they will still do underage marriages," said Mr. Bistline, 72, who has written about the F.L.D.S.

What do we do when the beliefs and practices of a religion violate the human or civil rights of others or the believers themselves? How do we allow for the freedom of religion or avoid discriminating against certain religious beliefs when those beliefs are based on discrimination of some other kind?

The case of Mr. Jeffs is an extreme example and perhaps not that difficult to judge because of existing laws. But the Bush administration has recently focused on the defense of the rights of religious people. These rights often conflict with the rights of someone else, and my prediction is that we will one day get a less obvious test case about how the government will rank these rights.
Cross-posted on TAPPED.