Plural marriage, once the peculiar institution of the Mormons and the Utah territory, continues to flourish illegally in the intermountain West.

Estimates on the number of polygamists in the West vary widely, but 50,000 is a commonly accepted figure. Perhaps half of them live in Utah, but there are flourishing polygamist sects in Arizona, Idaho, California and other Western states.

Polygamy was an accepted part of the doctrine of the Church of Latterday Saints (Mormons) from 1847, when Brigham Young, who had 27 wives and 56 children, proclaimed "the state of Deseret," until 1890, when the church outlawed polygamy as a condition of Utah's admission to the union.

After the 1890's decision, Mormons actively attempted to root out polygamy from their church, excommunicating anyone who advocated or practiced the doctrine. Ervil LeBaron, who heads a group he calls Church of the Lam of God, was excommunicated for polygamy in 1944 while serving on a mission to Mexico for the Mormons.

Despite secular and sectarian prosecution of polygamists, the practice has not died out. Polygramists are organized into a variety of sects and communities, some in remote towns that are exclusively polygamist. The best-known of these is Colorado City, Ariz., in the rugged, mountainous "Arizona strip" country across the border from Utah.

Colorado City, then known as Short Creek, was the scene of an infamous raid organized by Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle in 1953. The badly botched raid netted mostly women and children, instead of the polygamist leaders of the community, and backfired politically for Pyle. He lost much of the Mormon vote in the following year and was denied the Republican renomination for governor.

Today, Colorado City flourishes as the polygamist community in the middle of the desert made green by irrigation and industry. It has a few elegant homes owned by the leaders and a number of dormitory-like buildings in which women and children live. There are 612 schoolchildren in the community of 200 homes.

Critics of Colorado City, some of them polygamist dissenters, have tried without success to block state and federal school funds and federal water and sewer funds to the town. They say that Colorado City is a theocracy in which a few profit and women and children are exploited.

However, community members describe their town as a communal enterprise in which everyone shares. With Short Creek and its political consequences very much on the minds of politicians in Utah and Arizona, no one in government seems interested in launching a modern-day raiding party.

Indeed, there is considerable legal question whether plural marriage could be successfully prosecuted if anyone wanted to do so.

Harold W. Blackmoor, a self-described polygamist living in Hurricane, Utah, believes such a trend in judicial decisions permitting relationships between consenting homosexual adults probably would make prosecution of plural marriage impossible.

"Nobody is going to take polygamy to court," says Blackmoor. "They'd find out that outlawing it was unconstitutional."

This outspoken attitude by a practicing polygamist is shared privately by various law enforcement officials in Utah. A number of polygamists are still deterred, however, by the opposition of the Murmon church, which continues to excommunicate known polygamists. Many of the polygamists consider themselves, like Blackmoor, to be "Mormon fundamentalists" and regard this as a heavy sanction.

Owen Alfred, brother of slain polygamist leader Rulon C. Allred of Murray, Utah, is now the senior member of his brother's Salt Lake City based polygamist group.

"We believe we're LDS," or Latterday Saints, says Allred. "We have no quarrels with the church. Some people call us fundamentalists, some call us polygamists. That's all right, too. I call myself a Mormon."

Members of the Allred group attend Mormon churches, when they are allowed to, and have no doctrinal difference other than polygamy. But many of the smaller polygamist sects in the remote communities of the West have become openly critical of Mormon leaders, whom they see us having abandoned revealed truths in favor of a liberal, modern church.

Plural marriage was never, even at its height in the 1950s, practiced by more than 20 per cent of Mormons, mostly the wealthy leaders. A number of students of the practice consider that it was a useful way of taking care of widows and orphans in the harsh conditions of the 19th-century frontier.

In polygamist group like the one headed by Owen Allred, plural mar-[TEXT OMITTED FROM TEXT]

In polygamist groups like the one an industrious man." Allred says he would only allow one of five men who apply to take a second wife.

The one characteristic shared by all polygamist groups is contempt for Mormon abandonment of the practice in the face of political pressure. All of them point to polygamy as part of the revelation received by Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, and Owen Allred says, in a typical comment: "If plural marriage was done away with in 1890, so also was the blessing that went with it."

Most of the secular concern about polygamy continues to focus on the status of women and children. Tim Anderson of St. George, Utah, a sometime investigator for columnist Jack Anderson (no relation), has studied polygamist groups in Utah and Arizona and believes that some of them are "white slavery" situations for the young women, who often are married to wealthier, older men.

In order to avoid prosecution, polygamists often limit any civil record of their marriages to the first wife, who is the legal hair. Other wives, married in private ceremonies, have no legal standing or right to inherit property. Frequently, no birth certificates are issued for the children of plural marriage.And the babies are delivered by midwives or a practicing member of the sect.

For this reason, as well as the historic fear of prosecution, there is no accurate census of the polygamist communities.

Many citizens in Utah show an uncomfortable dualism toward polygamists, derisively calling them "pligs," as deplorin the practice. But many also accept the polygamist argument that the church abandoned plural marriage for solely political reasons. And non-polygamists frequently are sympathetic to stories of persecution of polygamists.

For their part, polygamists like to say that they only practice what they preach, while others behave hypocritically.

"With all that goes on in Washington, why should you object to polygamy?" one polygamist asked. "At least one here we marry our extra wives."