There was an interesting opinion article in the Vancouver Sun a few days ago after a Texas court sentenced Warren Jeffs (Trigger warning for written descriptions of child rape):
Laid bare in a Texas courtroom this week was the ugly, disturbing truth about the institutionalized pedophilia practised by polygamous leader Warren Jeffs and supported, tacitly if not overtly, by his 10,000 followers in the United States and Bountiful, B.C. Unlike British Columbia which has long failed to protect children as it dithered over whether religious freedom justifies polygamy, Texas aggressively pursued complaints about child rape and forced marriage within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Jeffs – the FLDS prophet – was convicted Thursday of child sexual assault and aggravated child sexual assault of a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old. He was the eighth FLDS member to be convicted in Texas since a 2008 raid on the church’s compound.
The article isn’t remarkable so much for its writing, but for the really important question it raises: how on Earth can claims for ‘freedom of religion’ even momentarily slow the mechanism of justice for those who would rape a child? Haven’t we failed as a society when we allow ourselves to get sidetracked in esoteric debates over whether the contents of your head license you to commit one of humanity’s most heinous crimes? Shouldn’t we also put on trial the law enforcement officials in Bountiful and the rest of the country who knew about what was going on and yet did not act? Members of the surrounding community that did business with the people of Bountiful and did not intervene? What about the municipal and provincial governments?
As a conscientious secularist I believe deeply in the principle of freedom of religion, or more precisely the freedom of conscience. People should be allowed to think and believe as they like, even if those beliefs are abhorrent to others. This is not simply an academic issue for me, nor is it for the majority of you reading this, about whom hateful attitudes are fostered and words spoken every day by a majority that detests us. Despite the harms that freedom of conscience may result in, the alternative idea of making certain types of thoughts/beliefs illegal should frighten you far more. Orwell’s 1984 gives us a glimpse into a world in which thoughtcrime is reality:
He was already dead, he reflected. It seemed to him that it was only now, when he had begun to be able to formulate his thoughts, that he had taken the decisive step. The consequences of every act are included in the act itself. He wrote:
Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death.
There is, however, a crucial distinction between freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. The phrase ‘freedom of religion’ has come to signify an excuse for antisocial or illegal behaviour provided there is an explicitly religious justification attached. It is the most pathetic and egregious type of special pleading possible – the attempt to secure a license to flout your responsibility to your fellow human beings because you haven’t learned to properly attribute the voice in your head to your own imagination. Somehow, this corruption of a noble secular principle has filtered its way into public consciousness, where it is often waved as a battleflag in the face of any errant secular campaigner who attempts to accomplish any separation of church from state.
What I still don’t understand in the case of British Columbia’s courts is why this argument is germane to the central problem at all. Winston Blackmore, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Bountiful is guilty of two different types of crimes. The first is violating the law governing polyamorous marriage – it is a crime (in the legal sense) to be married to more than one adult person. There are grounds for reasonable debate as to whether or not polyamory is a crime in an ethical sense, or whether such strictures as we have against it violate the spirit of the Charter. I have myself struggled with my feelings on polyamory given that, despite my discomfiture at the idea, I cannot find a good reason why a woman should not be allowed to have as many husbands as she likes (or can stand, as the case may be). Part of such a debate could reasonably include a discussion of freedom of conscience.
Blackmore and his vicious cadre of backwoods filth (I cannot find words strong enough to condemn the men in that community adequately – please forgive my linguistic failings) are guilty of an entirely separate class of crime, however: the rape, imprisonment, torture, and exploitation of children. Even simply putting those words down on paper (I hope there is a group somewhere that is dedicated to revising our aphorisms for a technological age) fills me with a sort of dark mirth at how cartoonishly evil these crimes are. There can be no justification, no mitigating circumstance, no plausible excuse for such foul acts. Speaking of ‘freedom of religion’ in a case where a harem of children were forced to watch a grown man repeatedly sexually violate their fellows spits on the Charter, makes a mockery of our system of criminal justice, and sullies the reputation of every Canadian that believes in the rule of law.
And yet, for reasons that I cannot fathom and I am sure you cannot either, Winston Blackmore is not yet in jail. The facts of the case are not in dispute – he has committed these crimes. The only reason for the delay that grows increasingly unacceptably long is our national obsession with preserving the pedestal upon which religion builds its smug throne. Justice has been delayed (I am reminded of a powerful legal maxim) for both the perpetrators and their victims. Even more bafflingly, there has been little done by way of rehabilitating the community members, abusers and abused alike, from the toxic religious totalitarianism they were raised into. This inaction cannot be at all explained by muttered invocations of ‘freedom of religion’, and yet that is precisely what is happening.
And so I put it to you, dear reader: while we cannot dispute the fact that Winston Blackmore is a disgusting monster, should we not direct also some of our disgust toward ourselves for taking this long – any amount of time, really – to take action against him?