Why their “Religious Freedom” Claim Doesn’t Work
(How did we get here?!)
In 2001 the FLDS “prophet” Rulon Jeffs told us, as a people, that the Lord had revealed that we were all supposed to move to Short Creek. (The name for the twin towns, Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. Headquarters to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Uncle Rulon, as we called him, had suffered from several strokes leading up to this point, and was unavailable to the people any more. We now received his instructions and directives almost exclusively through his son, Warren Jeffs. This was not too unusual, because for many of us who grew up in the Salt Lake Valley, we attended Alta Academy where Warren was the principal and main high school teacher. We had grown up hearing Rulon Jeffs often say that “Warren speaks for me.”
For many months leading up to the directive to relocate there had been a great amount of pressure being placed on us to give more to the church. On top of tithing – the normal, mandatory 10% of our gross income – the calls started coming to donate half our paychecks, and full paychecks. The “great destructions,” or apocalyptic end of the world was expected to hit any day, and what good was our money if we were left behind and destroyed?
In our case, we were already struggling. Well, we were doing okay. My husband worked long hours all week at Western Precision, worked long hours on Saturday as a donation to the church, and Sunday was for meetings. I worked from home to help make ends meet – cutting rubber stamps, sewing Victorian costumes for bears, and doing alterations. Stretching our money to meet all the bills, and feed and clothe our family was hard enough on full pay.
Our credit cards were nearly maxed out, at least close enough that after we donated, which caused us to miss a payment, the banks jacked up our interest rate. On some cards the rate nearly tripled. The interest charges soared. That put us over limit, which then triggered huge over limit fees, and our debt snowballed seemingly overnight.
This was the beginning of a new era in our deeply religious lives.
The rules started to change. They got more strict. No more vacations. No camping. No parties. No holidays. No more “play.” Because time was short and we all needed to work harder to be prepared for the tribulations ahead.
What was worth more than salvation? That was a question that was posed more and more often. At our meetings, and in our school and workplaces these were the questions that kept being raised: Where was our faith? How could we doubt? How could we put money above our salvation and our children’s salvation? Especially our children’s salvation. Good god! Did we want to risk having innocent blood on our skirts at the judgment bar? What could possibly be worth more than salvation?!
Well, when you’re poorer than the proverbial church mouse, it feels like there’s an awful lot of immediate cares to worry about.
I had grown up in Salt Lake. Our family rarely went to Short Creek, but when we had I never really liked it there. I had never been excited about living in Short Creek. Hearing that we were all moving there was not exactly welcome news. We had been taught that Short Creek was our gathering place, but I had always hoped that gathering would take place later instead of sooner.
Short Creek was to be our “Temporary Zion” until the BIG redemption of Zion in Jackson County, Missouri. After the great destructions. After god wiped all the wicked off the face of the earth. It would be such a thorough cleansing that “not even a yellow dog will be left to wag his tail.” Such complete and utter destruction that the only way to survive was for god to lift you up as the judgements passed over the earth. Then he would set us back down. Those not worthy, not filled with enough of Heavenly Father’s spirit, would be left and destroyed.
But then the next level up in the rules came: only those who God “called,” whose names were “whispered to the prophet” as worthy, would be allowed to move down. Suddenly the stakes were raised. We could get left behind! The time was here! We felt desperate to be found worthy. We prayed SO hard. The sacrifice of a paycheck here and there didn’t seem so hard, all of a sudden.
And so it began.
Happily, we were “accepted.” We were told to go to Short Creek on a certain Saturday along with all the other “Lakers” who had been found worthy, where we would be given a slip of paper that would have the name and number of the family whose house we had been assigned to move into. We got David Barlow, whose second wife was my husband’s sister. Now we had a landing point, next we had to prepare to move. We would live in their basement, but the kitchen wasn’t finished. We would just eat with their family until it was finished. No problem. At least we weren’t being left behind!
Toward the end of December, a crew showed up at our Salt Lake valley home with a semi truck and trailer, and loaded all of our earthly possessions. Three families were packed in that trailer. It would then be driven down and unloaded at the different houses. So we were instructed to label all of our belongings with the father’s name, so they knew where to unload what.
When we moved to Short Creek, Western Precision moved, too. Western Precision was the precision machine shop owned by Wendell Nielsen. It was where my husband worked, and it was where I had worked for years as a teenager. My father worked there. My father-in-law worked there. My sisters, brother, sisters-in-law and a brother-in-law or two had worked there, too.
Once we landed in Short Creek we were in for more surprises. Not the least of which was being informed that now that the company was in Short Creek, living expenses should be less, and Wendell was imposing a 50% mandatory pay cut for all employees, as well as canceling all medical benefits. There was no way now – for sure – that we could dig out from under our ever-growing debt.
We ended up filing for bankruptcy.
And we applied for government aid. Initially because our kids desperately needed dental work, but we found out that we also qualified for food stamps, and the food stamps sure did help!
We got someone (I honestly don’t remember who now) to watch our children, borrowed a car (can’t remember who we borrowed it from either), and drove to Page, Arizona.
When you fill out the forms to apply for aid you had to give your current address, declare all your income, assets, and help you may receive from others, along with names, birthdates and social security numbers of everyone in the household and how they’re related. We filled out paperwork, got our fingerprints and pictures taken, answered questions, and were given very specific instructions about what our responsibilities were while receiving government benefits.
These responsibilities included, but were not limited to, reporting any changes in household. That meant that if anyone was born, died, or moved in or out you had to report those changes – I believe within 10 days. Every 30 days you were required to report any changes to the declared income, assets or help received. Help received included if family or church helped with food, paying utilities, etc. These rules were made extremely clear. I know I wasn’t confused.
Over the next several years we were on and off of government aid, generally based around our children’s needs to go to the dentist.
When the church leaders started talking more and more seriously about initiating the United Order, I (very naively) thought that this was the best thing that could happen. FINALLY, after so many years of “giving our all,” working every waking hour, and living in poverty – not even able to properly feed and clothe our family – we were told that this would “level the playing field.” One Sunday, Bill Shapley was called on in meeting, and he told how he was shocked at the huge gap between those who “had” and those who “had not.” Right among the Priesthood people. He said he looked forward to seeing that gap closed and the people made more equal.
As far as I remember, that was the last meeting he spoke in. He was sent away to “repent.” His family split up and reassigned to different “caretakers.”
I really did think that things were going to change – in a good way. I wanted to believe it. To be completely honest, I actually felt really sorry for those who had been at the top, because this wasn’t going to be easy for them.
I never had any doubt that if we were all truly sharing there was more than enough to go around for all.
But as the months passed I saw more and more that left me feeling less than hopeful. I shopped at the Store House and there wasn’t much available. At this point we weren’t on food stamps, but I knew people who were. I was very much aware of the “secret” list that was kept at the service desk of the local grocery store. The Cooperative Mercantile Corporation (CMC). Those who were worthy of being members in the United Order (or UO) were directed to take their SNAP EBT cards to CMC, (or the Dairy Store, or the produce barn) ask for the list, buy things off the list – which had been sent over by the Bishop’s Store House – enough to spend all their benefits, and then deliver these items to the Store House (SH).
When I was donating items to the Store House I noticed things. There was a form you would fill out declaring the items you were consecrating so that a record could be made in the “Lamb’s Book of Life.” These forms were long lists of various items with a place to enter the quantity that you were consecrating. I noticed the lines for checking off how many WIC vouchers you were donating. I saw other women as they had just left the stores, having cashed out their WIC vouchers, now handing over the items to the church. It seemed so wrong. I understood the rules, and this was definitely against the rules. If this was god’s requirement why wasn’t god providing instead of the people being required to commit fraud?!
In “Uncle” Roy’s day, the story was told, the lord led him to a uranium mine to provide needed money. Why not now?
This last February, when I learned of what lengths the FLDS leaders had gone to in committing fraud, I admit that I was surprised. I thought they were smarter than that. I guess I was wrong.
These past six months of following this case has been extremely frustrating at times, knowing what I do from having lived on the inside. When the motion was filed asking the judge to drop all charges, based on the “religious rights” of the church members to consecrate their SNAP benefits, I was livid.
I have heard enough stories about how the gap has continued to grow. How many couldn’t get the food they needed. When I lived there I saw the full carts of “special” foods being taken out the back doors of the Store House by the elite families. Wendell Nielsen’s family, Merrill Jessop’s, John Wayman’s, and many Jeffs. Bacon, frozen juice, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, organic coconut and specialty sugars – things that never made it to the shelves.
I can see how the crazy dictates of Warren Jeffs, and the actions taken as a result, have damaged their own society beyond repair.
They are a “community in crisis.” A crisis caused by their own leadership.
They have destroyed profitable businesses – by various methods. They closed their stores because they couldn’t legally keep the “gentiles” and “apostates” from shopping there (and possibly telling the “faithful” the truth about their “holy” prophet and other leaders).
Lyle pressured business owners into giving him so much of their money that they no longer had any operating capital.
They sent men on “missions,” disrupting their business structure, and putting unskilled boys in as replacement labor.
Men were “called” to work at Western Precision/NewEra as a mission. Warren Jeffs decided who was employed there. I overheard John Wayman’s boys mocking men who were struggling to make ends meet: saying that they were “lucky” to be getting paid at all, because this was their “mission.” (In around 2005 ownership of Western Precision changed hands from Wendell Nielsen to John Wayman. Then in 2006 the business was moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, and the name was changed to NewEra.)
Many men were kicked men out, and at first the church followed the long-standing rule that no tithing was accepted from non-members. But then they started to feel the pinch. After all, not only had they been collecting the tithing of the people, but every Elder had been commanded to donate an additional $1,000 a month. The calls for more were never-ending. The men were told to “bow their backs” and donate more and more and more.
For many of us, we were already giving far, far too much.
Now, men were being sent away, told they had “lost Priesthood,” they were no longer Elders. Unworthy of their wives and families.
The church’s money source was drying up quickly and they needed to do something.
I remember hearing Lyle talk in the 11:00 “sinners meeting” about what a “privilege” it was for those men who were now non-members to work even harder – now that they didn’t have the responsibility of families – and save all the money they could so that when they were restored they could give it all to God.
But that wasn’t enough.
Now men were called on to take responsibility for those that had been taken from them, torn from their arms, and give as much money to the church as they could. NOT a tithing – that couldn’t be accepted. This was more like child support. Also a way to prove to the Lord that they really wanted to come back – that they were worthy to be fathers and be trusted with a family. If that was their goal, this was a great way to accomplish it.
Apparently that wasn’t enough either.
But that’s not surprising when you have a leadership that is fueled by greed, and a lust for power and control. When men become accustomed to “only the best will do” and “money is no object” the list of “needs” never seems to end. Luxury items are justified. After all, “if you only knew what the Lord has me doing,” you would see that I deserve this. Only the best for the Lord’s work.
Add to that the fact that they hold on tight to the women and girls, often sending men to drag them back if they leave, while kicking out the boys, you can see that they came up against a problem. So many mouths to feed. So many bodies to clothe. So many utility bills to pay – the list goes on and on and on.
Naturally, we couldn’t expect the good old boys at the top to sacrifice anything. This reminds me of one time, when I was in High School, in one of Warren Jeffs classes, he was giving us a sermon about the evils of drinking. One of the students commented on how he had seen Uncle Rulon (Jeffs, the prophet) drinking. Warren Jeffs, or Mr. Jeffs as we knew him, chastised him somewhat, and let him know that we couldn’t possibly understand the pressures that a prophet of god was under, and a prophet could certainly drink or do whatever he wanted, if that helped him relax. I admit that at that time, I fell victim to my questioning nature, and dared to wonder why God didn’t give him strength in proportion to his trials – you know, like the rest of us were expected to. We weren’t allowed to complain, or say we needed a break, or do anything but be grateful for what we had.
So, literally stealing the food out of the mouths of the poorest children became the new plan. (Now what’s that scripture again? Something about what you do unto the least of these, my children…?)
Instead of the food stamps going to actually feed the people, they were fraudulently swiped for cash, and that cash was used to buy things like new trucks and tractors. All in the name of God of course. After all, the Lord’s top servants needed a lot of stuff. To be all, well, “priesthood,” you know.
Now they want a court to allow it as a religious right? That doesn’t work, at least not according to my perspective. Let me explain.
This is how I see the current situation with the FLDS and the SNAP fraud case.
As the church leaders go through the process of “judging and purging, and judging and purging” (as Lyle calls it), according to Warren Jeffs dictates, they are also following another of his dictates as a result. One that states that the Lord had decreed that those judged “worthy” could no longer be allowed to live with those judged “unworthy.” So men are kicked out of their homes. Women are kicked out of their homes. Children are separated from parents. Housing is rearranged.
I sat in the meeting where Lyle Jeffs announced this decree. I will never forget his callous, unfeeling, almost gloating and hateful words. He gave some details about how housing arrangements were to be made – dependent upon if the father was worthy. In which case he would be allowed some say in where his unworthy family members would be sent. Along with passing on the commandment that “not one penny” belonging to a “worthy” member could go to the support of those found “unworthy.” Men were directed to help their unworthy wives and children find gainful employment to take care of their earthly needs. He said this needed to be done “quickly and efficiently, so we can get the flow of money going again.” Then he said it would be “the biggest game of ‘fruit-basket-upset ever!”
And then he chuckled. A cold, heartless chuckle. I never had any real love for this man, but this was unreal. He was talking about tearing families apart and found humor in it!
In the room behind me I could hear the women weeping. Mothers who understood the implications of what they had just heard. Mothers who knew this meant they were expected to give up their children.
As I walked home from that meeting I passed small groups of sobbing women outside. Trying to find comfort where no comfort was to be found. When what you believe to be god’s requirements are the cause of your pain, where can you turn?
This reminded me of the intense emotions I had felt at the time of the raid on the YFZ Ranch in Texas, belonging to the FLDS. As I watched the video and viewed the images coming out of there, for the first time I was grateful that we hadn’t had “our names whispered” to the prophet and been called to “Zion.” I held my babies closer, and prayed with all my heart and soul for god to deliver those children back to their mothers. To free them from our enemies. I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t imagine having my children torn from me. But, at least I could pray. The “enemy” had our children. Now, the same thing was happening, only it was god who was taking them away. You couldn’t even pray for comfort.
We had all been drilled in not having “sympathy against authority,” or not feeling sorry for what the lord directed. In these situations praying almost felt like sin. How dare you ask for god to change his law? How dare you question his judgment of worthiness? All you could really do was to thank him for this test and pray for strength to do better, and inspiration as to what more you needed to repent of.
Why did Heavenly Father allow this to happen to the most pure and innocent among his people?!” But even those thoughts felt blasphemous. I felt ashamed for not feeling willing to go through whatever tests the Lord saw fit to bring on his righteous people.
“Don’t put a question mark where authority placed a period.”
The phrases we were taught kept our minds trapped in an endless loop. You can’t make sense of it. You have to numb yourself.
“God and the prophet always and only do right.” That one was my biggest mind trap.
At the time of the raid, Seth Jeffs said they were launching an intense media campaign to “pull at the heartstrings of the people,” and influence public opinion in our favor. And it worked. Later, after I left the church, I came to understand how much of what was presented was lies. Complete lies and misrepresentations.
When everything that is important in this life is taken from you, you would do anything – anything – to prove worthy to have them back. Family, community, friends and a religion that was all you had known your entire life are suddenly swept away, and people seem to take one of two general directions. They either become desperate, or depressed and give up. That is, if they don’t break free and try to make a new life.
So, as these people are sent away, are these changes in household reported? With new addresses and list of who lives where and with whom?
As children are taken from their mothers, are those changes reported?
No. I’m sure they aren’t.
I know of men who were on “missions in Zion” (Texas, Colorado, and wherever else they were sent). Men who hardly saw their families. Maybe a couple of times a year. They devoted their lives to “building up the kingdom of god on earth,” while claiming to be unemployed. On government paperwork they lived in Short Creek, but they almost never set foot there. Unless they needed medical care, on the State’s dime. Or it was time to go to Page and renew their benefits. Their Arizona or Utah benefits are being shipped off to South Dakota, Colorado, Oklahoma, and wherever else the church has set up “houses of hiding.”
The church has the best of all worlds. Exploiting every person and defying laws to their maximum benefit. From the slave labor of men who pull government benefits from states they don’t live in to young boys being sent out on construction crews and paid next to nothing. Which addresses several problems for the FLDS leaders: it gets rebellious boys out of town, makes their construction businesses able to underbid their competition, and reserves more of the profit margin for the owners and the church. Women are kept busy consecrating their time to sewing for the Store House – providing new clothes for the elite. They work long hours at the old spud pit bottling the harvests, but often not having those harvests available to them. The best food gets sent to the “best” families.
Women are required to complete a sewing project each week, from what I understand, yet their own children are dressed in rags.
Taxes aren’t being paid in the counties where the benefits are being drawn from. Other businesses are harmed because they actually pay their – adult – employees a living wage, and can’t compete for contracts. There are no real benefits to the economy. In fact, society at large is harmed.
Not to mention another rule I almost forgot: you’re required to report if any beneficiaries are out of state for 30 days or more.
When the raid happened in Texas, the FLDS boasted about not being on welfare. Well, not Texas welfare anyway. But I know of at least a few who were on welfare in Utah or Arizona.
Next, we have the issue of reporting help received. Technically, for all the years that members were shopping at the Store House, what they received there should have been reported.
If the Store House helped pay your utilities? That should be reported.
I think I pretty much covered the simple fraud, the stuff I knew about before. Now I’ll address why I don’t see how the idea of consecrating benefits as part of living a “communal lifestyle” can possibly be allowed. At least not as it is being handled now.
It seems to me that if an entire community wants to be entitled to government benefits, they would necessarily have to follow the rules of the program – as a community. All the assets, incomes, vehicles and property would need to be reported. All names, birthdates, social security numbers, relationships, and addresses, submitted. And all members over 18 would need to be fingerprinted and have their picture taken and put into a database.
I honestly believe, from my experience, that the church, as a whole, possesses far too much wealth, and if they approached it in this manner no one would qualify for government benefits. Think about that for a minute. They claim to be required by their religion to consecrate all, so that all are equally blessed and provided for. The money and other resources are there. But the elite are unwilling to share the wealth. Wealth that was essentially stolen from the people.
Lyle Jeffs and John Wayman and their class of members in the church aren’t willing to go through applying. But they’re more than willing to reap the benefits stolen from others. One article I read indicated that Lyle was claiming it was his religious right to consecrate his benefits. But what he’s really fighting for is the ability to rob the poorest members of the church of their only real way to feed themselves and their children, so he has more cash available for his wants.
My understanding is that Lyle was granted public defenders because he has no money. Why doesn’t he go sign up for SNAP benefits, hand over all of his personal information, get his picture and fingerprints taken, and then report the details of his life to the government every month? THEN he could fight for his “religious right” to consecrate HIS benefits.
The truth of the matter is that he has never sacrificed anything for his religion. None of those at the top end of the hierarchy have. They stand with one hand out to take from the people, and a switch in the other to continually beat them into submission. I honestly don’t believe they have any idea what it’s like to actually suffer.
I’ve been told some of the stories of women who were sent away – told they were forever banished – with nothing more than an old junky car that wasn’t licensed, registered or insured, no instruction or counsel as to where to go or what to do, being escorted out of town by some of the God Squad thugs, (to be sure they actually left), and expected to find housing, a job, and live out the rest of their lives in isolation. Then last week I read one of the exhibits in this SNAP fraud case where it was stated that when Lyle was sent away he took $35,000.00 cash with him. I’m sure he had a nice vehicle, and every good thing that money can buy. Why? Because, John Wayman and the others at the top wanted to be sure that if, or more likely when, their turn came to be sent out, they would be well taken care of also. That’s my opinion, anyway.
In closing, I will say that I’m tired of seeing so-called religious freedom being used as an umbrella to cover crimes – whether they be legal or moral. Religious freedom cannot be allowed to continue to trump human rights. The FLDS is not as much a religion as it is a criminal organization. It needs to be treated as such.