As a teenager I struggled with authority. Yeah, me and every other adolescent who's walked this earth. I balked against anyone telling me what to do, when to do it, or what I ought to think about it. It's my body, my hair, my education . . . so leave me the hell alone. I swore when I had my own children I would never repeat the "sins" of my parents.
And then of course I had my own kids and I knew they needed guidance and gentle influence, and sometimes even some not so popular rules. "No, you can't stay up until two on a school night, no you can't go to a party where there are no parents, no you may not speak to me that way. . . ." And their response to me is the same one I gave my parents: "I can't wait until I'm eighteen and you can't tell me what to do anymore."
What you realize as an adult is that it's not so simple. There are not automatically unrestricted freedoms that come with adulthood. There are still rules, and expectations, and societal norms, and even laws that must be followed. And as I tell my children, "No, you don't have to do what I say, but there are consequences to not doing so." If you break my household rules you may get grounded or lose your allowance. If you break societal laws you may do jail time or worse.
The dilemma comes in our society where the government was founded on individual rights of free speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms (rights currently being hotly debated), versus the needs of the larger group to be protected from someone's individual rights. Is it okay for you to threaten me with bodily harm as an expression of your right to free speech? Is it okay not to wear a helmet when you ride your motorcycle, if after you squash your brain on the highway, my tax dollars are used to take care of you?
Nowhere is the tension between freedom of religion--an individual's right to choose--and societal laws and norms greater than in the case of the polygamists in Eldorado, Texas. (Women and children after being removed from the compound pictured below.)
So what's so wrong with polygamy? If a woman chooses to be one of five wives, shouldn't she have that right? Not my choice to do so but then no one is asking me to. I assume the FLDS church is just fine with my decision to stay away from them. They're not knocking on my door trying to recruit me as wife number six. So why don't we just leave them alone to practice their religion in peace?
I can think of a lot of religious practices that seem very strange to me. How about taking communion on a Sunday and believing that it is truly the body and blood of Christ? (I actually do believe in that as a practicing Episcopalian, but I'm also willing to admit others might think that practice quite odd and non-sensical.) How about the Jewish practice of circumcision, which is a religious ritual but practiced now by Jews and non-Jews alike? You don't think cutting the foreskin off of a baby's penis a little barbaric?
Where do we draw the line between free will and the safety and well-being of others? The FLDS group from Eldorado believes that they are upholding God's prophetic vision for them to live their lives in plural relationships. The United States has laws that make polygamy illegal. However these groups have been practicing polygamy for decades and mostly have been left alone to practice their religion. But this case hinges on the well-being and protection of minor children. And that's where the issue of free will becomes very important.
We do not believe that children under the age of eighteen (a somewhat arbitrary cut off) have the right to free will. I think mostly because we think they're not mature enough or wise enough to exercise their rights using good judgement. And that's often true. Ask any child whether they thought going to school was a good idea and you'd get many who'd opt for the "only if I feel like it and there weren't any tests" track. So as a society we have chosen to subsume the rights of the child under the rights of the parents. And in the Eldorado case the parents have chosen to allow their underage young girls to be married to much older men and to participate in sexual activity, often against their will. Most of society calls this child abuse, and this is why the children were removed from the compound. Child abuse trumped the right to practice your religion without obstruction from the government.
It will be interesting to see how this case turns out. I think many will be surprised to see that most of the women and children will be allowed to return to the compound. It could be a worse fate for some of these children to be taken away from their mothers and sent to foster care. That can't be the answer for what's in the best interest of these children. And it may be astonishing to many that if given the choice, most of the women would choose to take their children and return to what they consider a safe and nurturing home.
There will be much argument over whether or not these women from Eldorado are acting freely. They have been raised in this environment and some would say "brainwashed" to believe that they are subservient to men and that it is their duty to practice plural marriage. Most of all of us have been "brainwashed" by the way we are raised. I'm an Episcopalian, my next door neighbor is a republican, my best friend was raised to believe in astrology and the power of crystals. But I would say we have free will because we have the freedom to choose whether or not we want to continue the practices of our parents. They may be disappointed or even angry if we choose to vote for a democrat, but we won't be banned from contact with the family.
Adults should be allowed to practice whatever religion, or be in whatever relationship configuration they choose, as long as minor children are not abused, coerced, or denied the right to choose another lifestyle in adulthood. When someone who does not have the right to exercise their own free will is hurt, the law needs to intervene. This is true for children, the elderly, and those with serious and persistent mental illnesses. Thirteen-year-old little girls should not be having intimate relationships with men. That is not religious freedom. That is child abuse.Tweet