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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Great crazy religious story

If you're like me, you love stories about crazy religious people. Salon has a really intersting story about a Mormon cult in Utah that sounds like something out of "Big Love": polygamy, "Little House on the Prairie" fashions and banished boys living on the street for supposed sins.

The FLDS follows the same scripture as mainline Mormons, with one key difference: They adhere to the final revelation of their founder, Joseph Smith, instructing his followers to take multiple wives. In establishing a separatist community in Colorado City and practicing polygamy, they believe that they are the only true Mormons. The mainstream Mormon church, for its part, disavows its historical connection to the FLDS the way a person might disavow a slightly deranged cousin.

Colorado City's 10,000 residents make it the most populous town in the isolated wedge of chalky red desert north of the Grand Canyon and south of the Utah border. The town straddles the two states, materializing out of nowhere along a barren stretch of highway known as the Arizona Strip. Its seclusion is no accident: After polygamy was formally renounced by the Mormon Church in 1890, the town's early settlers sought out a remote site where they could take multiple wives far from public scrutiny. Residents call it the Crick, for the creek that meanders through the center of town, and kids commonly refer to themselves as Crickers. Three-fourths of the town's residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints; the other quarter belong to a sect called the Centennialists, which split off from the FLDS in the 1980s, insisting that the church be governed by its traditional committee of elders rather than submit to the dictates of the prophet.

When Warren Jeffs inherited control of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 2000, following the death of his father, Rulon, the first thing he did was marry 30 of his father's youngest and prettiest wives. Then he set about tightening his reins on Colorado City, a town where the women dress like the cast of "Little House on the Prairie" and the civic leaders -- the mayor, the police chief, the superintendent of schools -- are all subject to the prophet's orders. Jeffs banned holiday celebrations, forbade followers from listening to music except for the droning spiritual chants that he himself records, and prohibited all forms of worldly entertainment, including sports -- bowling, football, even snowball fights. Colorado City was run like a theocracy, with Jeffs its ayatollah.

In order to keep tabs on his followers, Jeffs relied on the local police, who acted more like the Taliban's morality squad than keepers of the peace. The cops were essentially informants, loyal first to Jeffs and second to the state laws that they were sworn to uphold. They patrolled the community for violations of the prophet's moral code, reporting infractions to their supreme leader. They would pull kids over for alleged traffic violations, then take photographs if they found CDs or other worldly possessions, which they turned over to the Jeffs. Until last year, when government officials in Utah and Arizona began investigating charges of underage marriage and tax fraud, Colorado City was essentially allowed to thrive outside the law.

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