SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs interrupted his Texas child sexual assault trial on Friday, shouting that his religious rights were being violated and warning the court it was stomping on "sacred ground".
"This is not a fly-by-night religious organization," Jeffs shouted in front of the startled jurors in the San Angelo courtroom, referring to the breakaway Mormon sect he leads.
"You are stomping on sacred ground. You are treading on a people of peace. This religion deserves protection. The government of the United States has no right to infringe on the right of a peaceful people. The mockery must cease. This religious persecution must cease."
Jeffs, who is representing himself at the trial, is charged with child sexual assault and aggravated child sexual assault in connection with his "spiritual marriages" to two girls, ages 12 and 14, at the remote Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas.
Jeffs, 55, is considered the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which experts estimate has 10,000 followers in North America.
The sect is accused of promoting marriages between older men and girls, and has been condemned by the mainstream Mormon Church.
The outburst happened when Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Nichols called FBI Agent John Broadway to the stand to ask him about the so-called "Bishop's List," which details the men at the ranch and their multiple wives.
Jeffs, who had previously sat quietly with his hands in his lap, sprang from his seat at the defense table, yelling "I object!"
He launched into a rambling 45-minute denunciation of federal prosecutors, the court system, and what he called a century of persecution of his FLDS sect.
Jeffs, the self-proclaimed "prophet" of his church, paced excitedly in front of the jury box as he pumped his fist, extended his arms, and cut the air with his hands.
"God has entered me upon the people of Earth as a living prophet," Jeffs told the jurors.
Jeffs frequently returned to what he sees as this case being a part of continued government persecution of the FLDS, which was created by Mormons who left the mainstream church after a Mormon declaration in 1890 outlawing polygamy.
The sect teaches that for a man to be among the select in heaven, he must have at least three wives.
"This is a sacred trust delivered to religious leadership, not to be touched by government agencies, no matter what," Jeffs thundered, referring to plural marriage. "We maintain the right of a free religion. You are now treading on sacred ground."
Jeffs' outburst and subsequent interruptions of other attorneys in the case led State District Judge Barbara Walther to dismiss the jurors and adjourn the court session until at least Friday afternoon.
Jeffs repeatedly said a special hearing, outside the presence of the jury, should be held to determine whether the Bishop's List should be introduced as evidence.
The list was collected during a raid on the ranch that was prompted by a phone call later determined to be a false report, which some attorneys have argued should negate its use in court.
The judge has already ruled that the evidence could be admitted. Jeffs has been his own attorney in the case since Thursday, when he fired all his lawyers and demanded to represent himself.
Editing by Karen Brooks