Monday, November 10, 2008

State’s Crusade on “Immoral Environment” Ends with Sobbing Children

Fifty years ago, Utah officials took Vera Black's seven children and threatened to place them in adoptive homes because Black refused to renounce polygamy. Officials said the children were living in an “immoral environment” and essentially forced Black to say that while she did believe in polygamy she would discourage her children from entering into polygamous relationships as long as it was illegal under Utah law.

Five of her daughters are now in polygamous relationships and Black is on her deathbed. The children want the state to apologize to their mother.

Here’s the conundrum: polygamy is illegal. Fine. But the official reasoning for removing the children in a raid was to protect them from an “immoral environment”. Is anyone else concerned with the state deciding what constitutes a “moral environment” for raising children?

The fact that polygamy is a criminal matter is not important. This post is not necessarily advocating for Utah’s laws to be changed, but officials should know better than to use morality as a reason for the law. Mormons see nothing improper with their religious practice of polygamy. Utah law needs to be enforced when there are secular concerns – like tax purposes or administrative reasons to have a single spouse. I do not see the difference between a child raised in a polygamist environment and a child raised by a single mother with multiple boyfriends.

Laws – criminal laws especially – should be written only with a secular intent. The state should not be in the business of dictating what is acceptably immoral and what is illegal. Different religious groups will disagree on what is moral or not so the persuasions of one religion – even if it is the majority – should never dictate what is to become law. Currently, only one of the Christian/Jewish 10 Commandments are part of U.S. law (murder/killing) and even that is waived in certain cases - self defense, war, assisted suicide (if you believe it is killing), ending life support (if you believe it is killing), abortion (if you believe it is killing). The reason “murder” gets on the books is because the secular purpose is to prevent anarchy and independent retaliation.

The debate that still remains is the role the government should play in preventing the downfall of civilization. Some people fully believe that if the government does not instill morals in its populace the foundations of society – and with it government – will come crumbling down. On the other hand, some firmly believe that faith is responsible for upholding the morals in a society. Instilling “morals” is the role of the church and the family, not the government. The government needs to stay out of the way of religion just as religion needs to cease meddling in matters of the state.

If a religion believes polygamy is immoral, it should preach of the evils of polygamy. If the state has a secular reason to make polygamy illegal, fine, put it on the books with the explicit understanding that criminal cases involving polygamy are because there is a secular purpose for having a single spouse. In this case, the children need not be taken out of the home because of the crime of the parents.

Children are taken from meth lab homes because of a health risk – not because of the “immorality” of drug use. Children are taken from single-parent homes when neglect or abuse is suspected, not because the parent is “immorally” entertaining multiple sexual partners. In this polygamy situation, the state should have never taken the children away. The parents were caring and loving and raising the children in a tight-knit religious home just as many children in traditional families are raised. Sure, in traditional families a child may be exposed to the alcoholism of a parent or the addiction to gambling but as long as the health of the child is not at stake, “immoral environments” are not a good enough reason to seize children.

The state owes Black an apology.


Rachel Merker said...

I agree that the state should cite secular reasons in its fight against polygamy as opposed to the danger of an "immoral environment." However, semantics aside, polygamy--or at least polygamy as practiced by Mormon fundamentalists--can have serious repercussions in the lives of those surrounded on it. If one wants to look at the secular implications of polygamy, he or she might confront the fact that women who are technically "single" because their marriage to a polygamist is not recognized by the state and who have multiple children receive welfare money and tax benefits in such a manner that fundamentalist communities are the recipients of a shockingly disproportionate amount of funds from the state. And, even though it may seem arbitrary or judgmental to use terminology related to morality, there are legitimate concerns about the social welfare of children being raised in polygamist communities. From my limited knowledge, in certain Mormon fundamentalist communities, girls as young as 13 are often informed by spiritual leaders--people who should be looking out for them--that unless they marry their stepfathers or even their uncles, who may be forty years their senior, they and their families will go to hell. Furthermore, the sexual repression in these communities leads to disturbing cases of incestuous molestation. Of course, we should practice care in how we treat extremist religious communities. Often, we need to take a step back and realize that our differences from them may not be reconcilable, or that it is not our place to judge their morality. But in certain cases, I can understand why authorities would resort to the shaky justification of guarding against an "immoral environment"if it meant rescuing young children from cycles of rape, guilt, incest, and brainwashing.

TLC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tyler C said...

Kudos to KB on this fantastic article regarding religion and American law! This is a great example of where the government has passed the line of personal freedoms. It was certainly ridiculous for the state to take the children of Vera Black's away and threaten to place them in adoptive homes because she refused to denounce polygamy. The children were not in danger of physical, or mental harm. The propaganda of the government has a long history of proving ill to personal moral and ethical boundaries. Sure, polygamy is illegal. As long as Black was not forcing her children into polygamous marriages as children, then nothing is wrong about her beliefs. The Supreme Court has ruled on the belief/action distinction. She believed, but was not acting upon her beliefs through her children. This is another instance where the "government knows best" mentality has gone too far.

caroline s said...

I agree that it is the role of the state to impose secular laws that enforce personal rights and civil obedience, not laws concerned with morality. Morality is not a fixed term, it has different a meaning for different people. The only governments that should be allowed to use morality as a basis for their legal systems are theocracies, since it is impossible to make a distinction between church and state when that state is governed by religiously infused laws. The use of the term “immoral environment” in the Black’s case was irrelevant and inappropriate. That being said, one cannot discount the fact that, moral issue or not, polygamy is often a necessary and legitimate government concern. When I was reading KBs post, I couldn’t help but think about the case this past April of the polygamist ranch, “Yearn for Zion”, in Eldorado, Texas. The government removed 400 children from the ranch on the grounds that they were in danger of suffering emotional, physical and sexual abuse. This action was taken after one 16-year-old girl called a family violence center on April 3 reporting that she had been beaten and raped by her 50-year-old husband. While this case is undoubtedly extreme it highlights just how difficult of an issue polygamy is for the government to tackle. I believe that the government was very out of place in 1953 when it confronted Vera Black but that it has greatly improved its handling of polygamy and extreme religious sects since then.

Lisa W. said...

While that state does not necessarily have the right to declare what is moral or immoral, they do have the right to declare matters illegal. While some people and religions may not believe polygamy to be immoral, it is however illegal. So in this case the fact that is that illegality outweighs immorality. There are numerous laws that many people do not agree with, but they are however it is the law and there far violating them is a criminal act. The state is necessarily saying that the parents do not love or care for their children, but they were committing an illegal act.

KB said...

I feel that if the state were concerned with the legality (or rather, illegal activity) then it should remove the individual married to multiple people - not the children.

It doesn't matter that polygamy is illegal because the state is stepping in with concern to the environment the children are brought up in. This is completely unacceptable.