SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Former followers of imprisoned polygamist leader Warren Jeffs are planning a Fourth of July event to celebrate their independence from the grips of his polygamist sect.
The event will be the first major public party in the sister towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, since Jeffs became president of the sect in 2002, The Salt Lake Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/1HzjUsj ).
They are hoping to get as many as 2,500 people at an event that will feature a flag ceremony, hamburgers, watermelon and fireworks.
“We’re celebrating the freedoms of our country, and the freedom that I’ve felt is being liberated from this cult,” said George Jessop, one of the organizers.
The polygamous sect known as The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, used to regularly hold community celebrations but Jeffs banned them when he took charge.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides. But he is thought to still be leading the sect from prison. His brother, Lyle Jeffs, carries out his edicts in the community.
About 7,700 people live in the sister towns. Most are still believed to be members of the sect, but the number of people who have been ousted or chosen to leave has multiplied in recent years.
The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of the mainstream Mormon church, but the faith abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.
The Fourth of July celebration will be held at the Cottonwood Park in Colorado City, which belongs to a trust created by the state of Utah when properties in the communities were seized a decade ago after mismanagement by Jeffs and other leaders.
Jessop expects hundreds of former sect members from all over the United States and Canada to come for the event. He and his wife stopped following Jeffs in 2012, he said.
Organizers say they will have an attorney at the event in case any problems arise with sect members who may not be please by the event.
Jim Barlow, who was evicted from the FLDS in 2010, said the event will serve as a message to Jeffs.
“What everyone wants to do is say, ‘We’re coming back,'” Jim Barlow said.
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com