Polygamists Fight to Be Seen As Part of Mainstream Society
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
SALT LAKE CITY -- In her battle to legalize polygamy, the only thing Valerie hasn't revealed is her last name. The mother of eight has been on national TV; her photo along with that of her two "sister-wives" has graced the front cover of a glossy magazine dedicated to "today's plural marriages."
She has been prodded about her sex life: "He rotates. It's easy -- just one, two, three." Quizzed about her decision to share a husband with two other women: "You really have a good frame of reference when you marry a man who already has two wives." Interrogated about what it's like to live in a house with 21 children: "Remodeling a kitchen, that's no small feat with three wives and a husband involved."
All the while, the petite brunette with a smile as bright as Utah's sky has insisted that she's just like you and me: "I'm a soccer mom. My kids are in music lessons. They go to public school. I'm not under anyone's control."
Valerie and others among the estimated 40,000 men, women and children in polygamous communities are part of a new movement to decriminalize bigamy. Consciously taking tactics from the gay-rights movement, polygamists have reframed their struggle, choosing in interviews to de-emphasize their religious beliefs and focus on their desire to live "in freedom," according to Anne Wilde, director of community relations for Principle Voices, a pro-polygamy group based in Salt Lake.
In recent months, polygamy activists have held rallies, appeared on nationally televised news shows and lobbied legislators. Before the Nov. 7 elections, one pro-polygamy group issued a six-page analysis of all Utah's state and local candidates and their views on polygamy. "We can make a difference," the group told supporters.
The efforts of Valerie and scores of others like her are paying off. Utah's attorney general, Mark L. Shurtleff, no longer prosecutes bigamy between consenting adults, though it is a felony. Shurtleff and his staff have established an organization, Safety Net, to bring together at monthly meetings representatives from at least five polygamous communities and law enforcement officers. He has arranged to have representatives of polygamous groups address Utah police. And three years ago, he wrote legislation to reduce bigamy between adults from a felony to a misdemeanor, although pressure from Utah's county attorneys derailed that.
In an interview, Shurtleff, a tall man who favors roomy suits and dark green shirts, said his office now treats bigamy between consenting adults much like fornication or adultery, laws about which are still on Utah's books.
"The thinking is this: This is a big group of people. They are not going away. You can't incarcerate them all. You can't drive them out of the state. So they are here," Shurtleff said. "What do we do about it?"
In their quest to decriminalize bigamy, practitioners have had help from unlikely quarters. HBO's series "Big Love," about a Viagra-popping man with three wives, three sets of bills, three sets of chores and three sets of kids, marked a watershed because of its sympathetic portrayal of polygamists. The U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which voided laws criminalizing sodomy, also aided polygamy's cause because it implied that the court disapproved of laws that reach into the bedroom.
Since then, liberal legal scholars, generally no friend of the polygamists' conservative-leaning politics, have championed decriminalization. One of them is Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who has written two op-eds for USA Today calling for the legalization of bigamy -- and same-sex marriage.
"I find polygamy an offensive practice," said Turley, who has become something of a celebrity among polygamists in Utah. "But there is no way its practice among consenting adults should be a felony."
What Shurtleff has vowed to do in Utah, rather than enforcing the bigamy code, is go after members of polygamist groups who break other laws, especially involving children. In April, Washington County prosecutors in Utah charged Warren Jeffs, the 50-year-old head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with two first-degree felony counts of rape as an accomplice on suspicion that he forced a 14-year-old girl to marry her first cousin, who was over 18. Jeffs, who was apprehended during a traffic stop in Las Vegas in August, is facing similar charges in Arizona. His next court appearance is Tuesday.