WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Polygamous sects that have spread throughout the United States and beyond are "a form of organized crime," largely unchecked by law enforcement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday.
Sen. Harry Reid says polygamous sects have "wrongly cloaked themselves in the trappings of religion."
He is proposing a federal-state partnership aimed at policing such communities.
"The lawless conduct of polygamous communities in the United States deserves national attention and federal action," Reid said before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sects such as the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have "wrongfully cloaked themselves in the trappings of religion" to conceal crimes such as bigamy, child abuse and statutory rape, the Nevada Democrat said. In such communities, teenage or preteen girls are forced to marry older men and bear their children, he said.
Although those offenses are the most obvious, Reid said, other criminal conduct occurs: "welfare fraud, tax evasion, massive corruption and strong-arm tactics to maintain what they think is the status quo." Watch Reid call polygamy 'criminal' »
Although witnesses acknowledged that other polygamous sects exist, the testimony focused on the FLDS, which practices polygamy in two towns straddling the Utah-Arizona border -- Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona -- and maintains the Yearning For Zion (YFZ) Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. The FLDS also has a smaller presence in other states, as well as in Canada and Mexico.
Witnesses' testimony painted a picture of FLDS life, which they said is ruled by church leaders and punctuated by oppression and emotional abuse. Unpaid child labor is common, they alleged, and children are subjected to a woefully inadequate education while adults disregard state and federal laws.
"The problems caused by the FLDS are unacceptable, whether they are a polygamous or a monogamous society," said Dr. Daniel Fischer, who told senators he left the sect 12 years ago. His father had three wives, he said, and he was the oldest of 36 children.
He co-founded the Diversity Foundation, which he said has assisted more than 230 young people expelled from the group, most of them male. Young men can be excommunicated merely for showing interest in a girl, he said, and a young woman who resists an arranged marriage to an older man comes under "extreme pressure." One who chooses her own husband is ostracized.
"Without question, FLDS members will sacrifice self, family and children if directed by their leader," Fischer said.
Reid said he is sponsoring legislation that would create a federal task force aimed at polygamous sects and provide grants for law enforcement agencies investigating and prosecuting crimes committed in the communities, as well as grants to provide assistance to those who testify against them, paying for witness protection, child care and counseling, for instance.
"I am not saying they are the same thing as the crime syndicates were in Las Vegas," said Reid, a former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. "But they engage in an ongoing pattern of serious crimes that we ignore at our peril."
No FLDS supporters were called to testify Thursday before the committee. The FLDS, an offshoot of the mainstream Mormon church, maintains that it is innocent of any crimes and that the sect is being persecuted because of its religious beliefs.
However, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said, "First Amendment rights do not extend to domestic violence, child abuse [and] statutory rape."
FLDS leader and "prophet" Warren Jeffs is facing a sentence in Utah of up to life in prison after being convicted on charges of being an accomplice to rape. In addition, Jeffs is awaiting trial in Arizona.
This week, he and other FLDS members were indicted by a Texas grand jury; Jeffs is charged with sexually assaulting a child, a first-degree felony.
The FLDS is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, which renounced polygamy a century ago. Both Reid and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, another member of the committee, are Mormon.
In the sect, families are destroyed when married men are expelled from the community and their wives and children assigned to another man. Fischer recounted his own excommunication for committee members.
"It is a hell of a feeling to all of a sudden discover you're an orphan at age 50," said a tearful Fischer. "I had nightmares for a year. I still have nightmares."
Meanwhile, the organization flourishes financially, Singular testified. One FLDS company, New Era Manufacturing, has a $1.2 million contract with the Department of Defense, he said. Colorado City receives eight times the welfare assistance of other comparably sized communities, Singular said, and received a $1.9 million federal grant to improve its infrastructure.
"The FLDS openly despises the American government while taking its money," he said. In the community, he added, such conduct is called "bleeding the beast."
Former FLDS member Carolyn Jessop, who has written a book about her experiences in the sect and fleeing it, said women and children in the community "live without the protection of laws that most Americans take for granted."
She said her oldest son, at 12, was pulled out of school and sent to work, unpaid, for a business. In 2002, Jeffs removed all the sect's children from public schools, placing them into religious schools, where they were taught by uncertified teachers lacking a college education and took no standardized tests to measure performance. The religious schools have since been closed, and for the past two years, most FLDS children have not attended school at all, she said. "Their education has essentially stopped."
On the law enforcement side, Brett Tolman, U.S. attorney for the District of Utah, questioned whether a federal task force would be appropriate in targeting polygamous sects, which are often isolated and insular, and whose members mistrust outsiders, especially government agencies. By announcing the formation of a law enforcement task force, he said, "you give notice to those individuals that you are targeting them."
The FLDS routinely moves from state to state when they feel pressure from law enforcement, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. He and others listed ways that federal assistance would be welcomed, investigating FLDS businesses that may be beyond the scope of local or state authorities, for instance.
"What has taken a century to build will not change overnight," Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said. "But step by step, we're making important changes."