AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Responding to a polygamist sect's move to West Texas, a state lawmaker has filed a bill that would raise the age of consent of marriage from 14 to 16, outlaw stepparents from marrying stepchildren and stiffen the requirements to run for office.
Rep. Harvey Hilderbran's bill went before the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues on Wednesday.
The bill is aimed at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has built a new complex just north of Eldorado, about 160 miles northwest of San Antonio. Members are not allowed newspapers, radio, television or the Internet and are forbidden to speak to outsiders.
"If they leave the state that is fine with me," Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said Wednesday. "We don't want them here unless they are going to comply with Texas law and comply with Texas values of protecting women and especially children."
Rod Parker, a Utah attorney who has represented reclusive prophet Warren Jeffs and other FLDS church members, called Hilderbran's comments disappointing.
"I think it's inappropriate to pass laws or use your position as a lawmaker to essentially try to drive someone out of town, which is what he is trying to do," Parker said.
Parker said the bill is a result of misinformation and stereotyping by those whose agenda is destroying the church.
FLDS is one of several groups that split from the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the decades after it renounced polygamy in 1890.
The sect has a history of polygamy that's been an open secret in Utah. In civil lawsuits filed by former members there, Jeffs is accused of sexual misconduct and of assigning young girls as wives to older men. Authorities say the charges are not enough to produce criminal charges because they can't get anyone to talk about Jeffs.
"These Fundamentalists, they believe they need to follow the laws of their church regarding marriage in order to achieve salvation," Parker said. "In weighing that and to balance what the Legislature might do in charge of the law puts people in a difficult position. Most members would choose salvation over temporal concerns that might be raised by this law."
Hilderbran said he supports a person's right to religious freedom, but that is not the issue addressed in the bill.
"We're targeting the behavior and activities that we think jeopardize our young girls and women in general," Hilderbran said.
The bill is meant to update Texas law, following a model from Utah that many believe has caused other polygamous groups to move to other states, Hilderbran said. ---
Associated Press writer Matt Curry in Dallas contributed to this report.
Hilderbran's bill is HB 3006.