WASHINGTON -- Sen. Harry Reid rarely talks publicly about religion, but on Thursday religion provided an unavoidable subtext for him at a Senate hearing.
The Nevada Democrat took a lead in demanding that federal authorities step up the pursuit of criminal activity taking place within polygamous groups.
Reid said communities where families practice plural marriage as a matter of faith provide a protective cloak to men who commit crimes against women and children, and more sophisticated frauds, embezzlements and extortions.
Polygamy movements once were limited to isolated compounds in Utah and Arizona as breakaway sects from the Mormon church, which renounced the practice a century ago. But they have migrated to other states in the West, and into Canada and Mexico.
Criminals have proved adept at avoiding the law by moving freely among sanctuaries, authorities said.
Reid drew a distinction between polygamist sect leaders and the mob bosses he once battled as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission in the late 1970s, but he said polygamist communities "are a form of organized crime."
"The lawless conduct of polygamous communities in the United States deserves national attention and federal action," Reid said at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I have long believed that the federal government should play a larger role in this fight."
Reid is one of 16 Mormons in Congress, and the most powerful as Senate majority leader.
He said it was coincidence that his call for action came on Pioneer Day, which is celebrated by church members around the world as a day when Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
"We do honor to our pioneer ancestors by condemning those who have wrongly cloaked themselves in the trappings of our religion to obscure their true criminal purpose," he said.
Reid afterward said his faith motivated his actions, "as I hope anyone's faith would have something to do with this. There are criminal activities taking place, and people should not turn a blind eye."
Reid on Wednesday introduced a bill to establish a federal task force to focus on crimes committed by polygamists, and offer federal assistance to people who seek to escape from polygamist compounds.
The bill drew a mixed reaction among law enforcement officials from Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Utah who testified Thursday.
But the hearing, which ran more than two hours in a crowded room, put a spotlight on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the largest and most notorious polygamist group. Its leaders have been accused of strong-arming and controlling the finances of church members and forcing young girls into marriage and sex.
FLDS leader and prophet Warren Jeffs was convicted last year in Utah of rape-related charges and faces similar accusations in Arizona and Texas.
Jeffs and five associates were indicted this week by a grand jury in Texas.
Former church member Carolyn Jessop told senators she fled the FLDS community of Colorado City, Ariz., on April 22, 2003, with her eight children and $20 in her pocket.
"I was desperate because I could no longer protect my children from the increasing abuse within the FLDS," said Jessop, who now lives in West Jordan, Utah.
She has written a book, "Escape," about growing up in the fundamentalist group.
Jessop said she was married at 18 and became the fourth wife to Merril Jessop, a close associate of Warren Jeffs.
Over time, Jeffs tightened his hold on the community, ordering children out of public schools and into "religious" schools where he approved the curriculum and did not allow anyone with a college education to teach, Carolyn Jessop said.
Instead of math or science, children were taught from Jeffs' tapes that blacks were evil and Jews will never enter heaven, she said.
Children as young as 12 were pulled from school and forced to work for FLDS construction firms, she said. In Colorado City, the church controlled the local government, making it difficult for abuses to be reported.
Jessop called for federal oversight of polygamous communities, so the law "is enforced in FLDS communities as they are in other parts of the United States. This would not be religious persecution, just equal protection under the law."
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said the FLDS "could easily be classified as a hate crimes group because of what they are teaching young children.
"What's happening here is as bad as anything I've seen in the world," Cardin said.
At least five FLDS members sat in the audience, with two women wearing pioneer dresses that have become an identifying image of church members.
FLDS spokesmen said the group's requests to testify were ignored, and they condemned the hearing afterward as an exercise of smear and religious profiling.
Church member Willie Jessop accused Reid of pursuing the sect as a way to curry favor with Mormon voters in Nevada.
"This is a very disgusting abuse of power," Willie Jessop said.
He said Carolyn Jessop was trying to "sell a book."
Jim Bradshaw, a Salt Lake City attorney and FLDS spokesman, said the hearing "demonized an entire religion, every member, because of allegations against a few."
Bradshaw suggested that Reid and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Mormon who also spoke at the hearing, sought to distance the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the FLDS.
"You could not listen to that hearing and come away with any conclusion other than that these senators who are LDS are very concerned about being tied to FLDS, and this hearing in large respect was about trying to distinguish that," Bradshaw said. "But if that means you are going to persecute the FLDS, that is wrong."
As for Reid's bill, "if that legislation were aimed at any other group -- we are going to create a task force aimed at prosecuting and investigating Catholics or people of the Jewish faith, or gays and lesbians -- people would go crazy," Bradshaw said. "You don't profile a group based on Reid's call for a federal task force," consisting of federal prosecutors from the West as well as the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services.
Brett Tolman, the U.S. attorney for Utah, questioned whether a high-profile crackdown wouldn't be counterproductive.
Investigators depend on building relationships with informants and potential witnesses inside polygamous sects, and reports of a pending federal crackdown already have caused contacts to withdraw, Tolman said.
"In this context, a task force may be too blunt an instrument to accomplish an effective investigation, and subtler and more covert methods may be more profitably employed."
Besides, Tolman said, communication and coordination are already under way among federal, state and local offices.
On the other hand, attorneys general from Arizona and Texas said they welcome more federal involvement.
"Given the nature of the crimes that may have been committed, there are a number of areas in which cooperation and coordination could be particularly effective," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said criminals associated with polygamist groups are easily able to escape the law by moving across state lines, which could be addressed by more federal involvement.
He said there was a joke that the FLDS compounds in Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, were on wheels. When the law got close in one state, the operation just rolled over the border.
"The jurisdictional ability to slip away has been a characteristic of this criminal activity," Goddard said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@ stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.