Activists Call for End to Human Rights Abuses by Polygamists in the U.S.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK -- Activists are demanding that the United States
put a stop to the serious human rights abuses against women and
children that are being carried out in the name of religious freedom
by polygamists in Utah, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, and
neighboring states. They say that women and girls in polygamous
communities are subjected to a pattern of abuses that violate not
only U.S. law, but also U.S. obligations under international law.
Federal and state governments have not adequately enforced the law,
advocates charge, allowing abuses such as incest, violence, child
marriage, trafficking in girls, coerced marriage of adult women,
sexual abuse, and the denial of education and access to information
to go unpunished.
"As U.S. citizens, we like to believe that we are on the cutting edge
of progress as a society. But women and children in polygamous
communities in the U.S. are suffering daily from human rights
violations that the perpetrators claim are justified by their
religious beliefs," said Laura Chapman, director of the
Colorado-based Polygamy Justice Project, "No religious belief excuses
Chapman, who fled from a fundamentalist Mormon group 10 years ago, is
all too familiar with the "crippling" effects of life in these
communities. "Whenever I describe practices that were considered
normal within my family and our polygamous community, people can't
believe that this could be happening in the U.S. in the 21st
century," said Chapman, whose efforts to help two girls escape forced
marriages in polygamous families were chronicled on CBS's "48 Hours.".
"The U.S. must abide by the same human rights principles it asks
other governments to respect," said Professor Donna Sullivan of the
NYU Law School's International Human Rights Clinic. "The Bush
Administration has condemned women's human rights violations in
Afghanistan, but allows these human rights abuses by religious
fundamentalists at home to continue." Advocates are demanding
immediate action, including appointment of an Utah special
prosecutor, shelters and free legal assistance for women and children
who escape polygamous relationships, and creation of an U.S.
Department of Justice task force on polygamy-related abuses.
In recent months, the U.S. has championed the cause of women's human
rights in Afghanistan and condemned religious fundamentalism in other
countries. Yet in the U.S. itself religious fundamentalists are
allowed to violate women's human rights with impunity. Media and
activist sources have documented a pattern of abuse against women and
girls in polygamous families involving violence, child marriage,
trafficking, coerced marriage of adult women, sexual abuse, and
incest. Many live in closed religious communities in which they are
denied education and access to information from the outside world.
Although both international human rights law and U.S. law prohibit
these abuses, state and Federal officials have failed to ensure that
these legal guarantees are observed in practice.
Many of these polygamous families belong to a religious group known
as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day
Saints, which broke away from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ
of the Latter-Day Saints (the "Mormon Church") over the mainstream
Church's official ban on polygamy. Although polygamy is prohibited
by the Utah State Constitution and its bigamy statutes, the
prosecution of Tom Green in 2001 for polygamy was the first since
1953. Most observers believe that Mr. Green was prosecuted only
because he had embarrassed state officials through his aggressive
promotion of polygamy in the media at a time when preparations for
the Winter Olympics had focused public attention on Utah.
Women and girls who have fled polygamous families report that
religious teachings emphasize their duty to submit to the authority
of their fathers, husbands, and male religious leaders, and link
polygamy to their spiritual salvation. The religious teachings of
these polygamous groups and the closed nature of their communities
create conditions in which women and girls are especially vulnerable
to violence, coercion, and abuse.
These polygamy-related abuses violate international human rights that
the U.S. has legal obligations to ensure: security of person; freedom
from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; freedom from
discrimination based on sex or religion; equal protection of the law;
"free and full" consent to marriage; the right to education; the
right to information; the right to an adequate standard of living;
and a remedy for violations of rights.
These rights are guaranteed by both the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights ("Covenant"). The Universal Declaration is considered to be
binding customary international law. Moreover, the U.S. played a
leading role in its drafting at the end of World War II. In 1992,
the U.S. ratified the Covenant, which is a international treaty; by
doing so it agreed to respect and ensure the rights in the Covenant.
Although the U.S. entered "reservations" to the Covenant, intended to
qualify its obligations, the reservations do not apply to its duties
with regard to these polygamy-related abuses. The U.S. is thus
accountable to its people and the international community for meeting
its human rights obligations to end polygamy-related abuses.
THE RIGHT TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DOES NOT PROTECT THESE PRACTICES
These violations cannot be excused in the name of religious freedom.
Leaders of polygamous groups and several public officials have
claimed that religious freedom protects the right to practice
polygamy. They argue that government action against polygamy-related
abuses amounts to religious persecution. But religious practices
that violate the human rights of others are not permitted by
international law, which stipulates that religious practices can be
restricted when necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of
Nor does the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protect
religious practices that cause harm to others. The harm associated
with polygamy-related abuses puts these practices beyond the scope of
religious freedom under the Constitution, including: the physical and
mental harm caused by violence and abuse; the harmful effects of
child marriage on a girl's health, educational opportunity and
psychosocial development; and the harmful emotional and psychological
consequences of isolation within communities that instill a belief in
IMPUNITY: GOVERNMENT FAILURE TO END THE VIOLATIONS
Officials in Utah, Arizona and the U.S. Federal Government have
allowed those responsible for polygamy- related abuses to escape
justice, with few exceptions. A number of police officers,
prosecutors and high-ranking politicians continue to defer to the
"privacy" of polygamous groups or the religious nature of their
beliefs. Some law enforcement officials have stated that the crimes
associated with polygamy are so numerous that they lack the resources
to prosecute. Because there appears to be little public support for
prosecutions and the large polygamous clans hold important business
interests, local politicians have not supported investigation and
prosecution. Utah legislators have repeatedly refused to pass a bill
that would fund shelters for women and children fleeing polygamous
Ron Allen, a Utah state senator from the minority Democratic party,
has pointed out that the historical practice of polygamy within the
mainstream Mormon Church makes it difficult for the 75% Mormon
population of Utah to condemn polygamy: "for people in Utah to
confront polygamy means they have to confront practices condoned by
their ancestors, including mine." (L.A Times, Sept. 9, 2001).
Nor has the Federal Government acted to end impunity for these
violations. Efforts by individuals and groups to enlist the U.S.
Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in
dealing with the pattern of polygamy-related abuses and specific
cases have been unsuccessful. Ultimately, it is the responsibility
of the U.S. Government to ensure that these human rights violations
against women and children are brought to an end.
The Polygamy Justice Project, the International Human Rights Clinic
at the New York University School of Law, and the Child Protection
Project are calling for immediate action by state and federal
officials and have launched an appeal for international support for
their demands, which include:
- Appointment of a Utah special prosecutor with authority to oversee investigation and prosecution of polygamy-related abuses, with human and financial resources to support this mandate;
- Review and amendment of existing legislation related to marriage, child custody and support, property and eligibility for social services to ensure that the rights of women who leave polygamous relationships and the rights of their children are adequately guaranteed;
- Free legal assistance to women who leave polygamous relationships;
- Funding for shelters for women and children who leave polygamous families;
- Training about polygamy-related abuses and the characteristics of polygamous families for: law enforcement officials; social services personnel; judges; lawyers, including prosecutors; health care workers; and teachers;
- Guidelines for social workers and law enforcement officials outlining their investigative duties and procedures in cases involving polygamous families;
- Public education campaigns to inform the public and those living in polygamous communities that polygamy-related abuses are human rights violations and will not be tolerated;
- The establishment of a task force in the U.S. Department of Justice on polygamy-related abuses and the refusal of state and local officials to enforce the law, with a mandate to take the steps necessary to ensure an end to these violations; and
- U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The Polygamy Justice Project and the Child Protection Project are
non-governmental organizations working to end polygamy-related abuses
in the United States. The International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC)
is a part of the New York University School of Law Clinical Program,
the largest and most diverse clinical law program in the United
States. Students in the IHRC work with faculty and non-governmental
organizations on actual cases involving such issues as conflict
situations, economic and social rights, women's human rights, and the
International Criminal Court.
Activists Call for End to Human Rights Abuses by Polygamists in the U.S.
Child Protection Project Press Release 7Feb02 A2