(SAN ANGELO, Texas) — Polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs broke his silence Friday, delivering before jurors a 55-minute sermon defending plural marriage as ordered by God and protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Jeffs, 55, is accused of sexually assaulting two underage girls and could face life in prison if convicted. He fired his high-powered defense team on Thursday and has been representing himself, but he made no opening statement and spent hours sitting alone at the defense table staring into space in silence while prosecutors made their case.
That changed, however, as FBI agent John Broadway testified about seizing eight desktop computers and 120 boxes and large folders of documents from the sect's West Texas compound in April 2008. Broadway was about to describe a list of names and birthdates for those living at the compound when Jeffs suddenly cried "I object!" "There is sacred trust given to religious leadership not to be touched by government agencies," he said.
Jeffs is ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The church's 10,000 members see Jeffs as a prophet who speaks for God on Earth.
When answering questions from state District Judge Barbara Walther, Jeffs usually pauses for a full minute or two and then speaks in slow and deliberate tones, interrupted by long, awkward pauses. But his objection flowed more smoothly. "We cannot surrender these principles based on the laws of man trying to convince us that our religion is not necessary in practice," he said, referring to freedom of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Jeffs later added, "this must stop in a land of freedom if all others are to receive a similar guarantee against their freedom of religion being trampled."
Jeffs said his church has practiced polygamy for five generations and believes it is the will of God, who is a higher power than courts, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. Jeffs is scheduled to be tried for bigamy in October. "We are not a fly-by-night religious society . . . We are a community of faith and principles and those principles are so sacred. They belong to God, not to man and the governments of man," he said, later adding that polygamy "is not of a sudden happening, it is of a tradition in our lives. And how can we just throw it away and say 'God has not spoken?'"
Jeffs asked Walther to suspend the case and hold a hearing on whether his church's religious freedoms were violated. He said FLDS members believe adhering to God's will, as stated by prophets like himself, is the only way to achieve eternal life in "Zion," or heaven. "We do not seek your salvation," Jeffs told Walther and the 10 female and two male jurors, who watched and listened intently but made no visible reaction to his words.
Jeffs said Texas authorities had unfairly persecuted the FLDS simply because its members are different from those of mainstream religions. Women in the sect wear prairie-style dresses and keep their hair tied up in tight buns that conjure images of frontier times. "We are derided for how we dress, how we go about our laborers in a common society," Jeffs said. "The government of the United States had no right to infringe on the religious freedom of a peaceful people." Authorities, he said, are "not understanding our religious faith, yet judging it."
When Jeffs finished, lead prosecutor Eric Nichols rose and said the Supreme Court has found since the 1890s that religious freedom does not extend to polygamy. When Jeffs interrupted, Walther said, "Mr. Jeffs, please sir, follow courtroom procedure."
When he kept interrupting, the judge dismissed the jury and ordered Jeffs to speak with defense attorney Deric Walpole, who sits in the public gallery but has been instructed by the court to stay on as side counsel.
Jeffs' sect made headlines nationwide in 2008, when authorities raided its compound in tiny Eldorado, about 45 miles from San Angelo, after hearing allegations that young girls were being forced into polygamist marriages. More than 400 children were seized temporarily but eventually returned to their families. Still, Jeffs and 11 other FLDS men were charged with crimes including sexual assault and bigamy.
All seven sect members prosecuted so far have been convicted. They received prison terms of between six and 75 years.