Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Only in Utah

Some recent stories have made the local news that remind me I live in a place which can be a world unto itself. Sometimes we in Utah are members of American society at large, sometimes we are in a theocratic bubble in which the inhabitants try to ignore the laws of the nation.

For over a century it has been illegal to be a polygamist in Utah. It came about when the federal government made it a condition of statehood in the 1890s. The Mormons, after having taught polygamy was immune to man’s laws and only answerable to God, declared that polygamy was no longer part of the religion. Polygamists would be excommunicated. It caused a lot of splinter sects which still practiced polygamy to spin off from the official church into small bands loosely called fundamentalist Mormons.

Last Friday U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups, in answer to a lawsuit filed by members of the family that make up the TLC “reality” show, Sister Wives, declared that parts of Utah’s polygamy laws, those related to cohabitation, were unconstitutional. The rest of the statutes regarding polygamy: no taking of child brides, domestic violence, taking out multiple marriage licenses (bigamy) are still in effect. Polygamists marry in religious ceremonies and don’t take out licenses.

The truth is that except for the more egregious breaches of law no polygamists have been prosecuted in Utah in over half a century solely for being in a polygamous marriage. No polygamists are prosecuted for cohabitation, which would be a total waste of taxpayer money.

So…what changed, and why was it headline news? Well, nothing changed, really, except to make Utah Governor Gary Herbert announce that he would have to study what the ramifications of the judge’s ruling are. He said, “I’m always a little concerned when we have decisions that change public policy by the courts . . .I’d much rather see decisions on social issues come from our legislature representing the will of the people. [Emphasis mine.]

 Gov. Herbert, whose round face makes me think of a grownup Charlie Brown, has that Peanuts character’s wishy-washiness.

In other words, our governor has put himself into the story with his usual pronouncements, implying that any federal law that makes sense trumps a local law that doesn’t. This in regard to a ruling that just affirmed that we are no longer living in the nineteenth century, and laws regarding cohabitation, whether for religious or sexual purposes, are no longer the business of anyone but the people doing the cohabiting. Those laws, which are still on the books in some states besides Utah, are not enforced anywhere in the U.S. because cohabitation may be seen as immoral by some, but is not illegal.

Yet the story made the newspaper front page two days in a row.

Only in Utah.

Another story has to do with a controversy over a long-held belief by Mormons that people of African descent were “cursed in the pre-existence” with black skin to show they had not been as vigilant on the side of right during a war in heaven. So God sent them into the world to be enslaved and discriminated against. I was taught this arcane belief when still a member of the church. Many Mormons used it as a defense of discrimination and prejudice. In 1978 the church changed its policy, declaring that the time of discriminating against blacks for their skin color was over, and that now black people could hold the priesthood in the Latter-day Saints church. Some devout Mormons, who had a tough time giving up those longtime, strongly-held beliefs thought the church was bowing to social pressure, and that the “curse” was still a fact, even if not recognized officially.

Bigot Brigham Young

The story that hit the news last week was that the church has finally admitted that the belief of fence-sitting souls in a pre-existence war who would be born as black was never doctrinal. It came from Brigham Young, church president when the church relocated in the mid-nineteenth century to the wilderness that was Utah. As the church story explained, Brigham Young was “of his time,” and had prejudices relating to his era. All that mumbo-jumbo about a curse was never an official Mormon belief, even though it was taught by church leaders and even defended for many years by devout Latter-day Saints as coming straight from God. (My article about this belief is here.)

My personal feeling was that it became church policy when the Mormons came West in 1847 because the country was being pulled apart by slavery. As a practical matter Brigham Young didn’t want runaway or former slaves to feel at home in Utah. So Brigham did what Brigham did best: he went to the revelation card and claimed God told him that was the way it was. After a century-and-a-half his obvious and odious lie made local front page headlines.

Only in Utah.

Ron Lafferty, tormented by a ghost?

The third story is a little trickier because it hinges on a statement by a defense lawyer defending murderer Ron Lafferty, who lives in Utah State Prison’s death row. In 1985, in some fit of crazy religious zealotry, Lafferty and his brother, Dan, murdered a third brother’s wife and her 15-month-old daughter. Lafferty has never been thought of as a mentally fit person, but the defense lawyer has a unique take on the latest goings-on in this now nearly 30-year-old saga.

Lafferty has claimed to being harassed by the deceased father of the judge. As quoted in the copyrighted article by Brooke Adams in the December 10, 2013 Salt Lake Tribune:
     “Lafferty believes that the ghost of Judge Steven J. Hansen’s father tormented him during the . . . trial, causing him physical discomfort and leading him to act out during the proceedings. The ghost, according to Lafferty, did so because he was unhappy with how the judge conducted the proceedings.
     “While many of Lafferty’s beliefs are rooted in the Mormon faith within which he was raised, this particular belief diverges from [Latter-day Saint] theology about how spirit beings interact with the mortal world, the attorneys say.
     “‘This is not a belief that is shared by Mr. Lafferty’s cultural or subcultural (sic) group,’ the brief says, “Therefore it is a delusion.’”
So let us make clear what the defense is saying. If Lafferty is tormented by a ghost, he’s not delusional in the sense that ghosts do not exist and cannot be tormenting him, it’s a delusion only because the Mormon church does not believe that is how spirits of the dead interact with the living.

Got that?

Only in Utah.

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