ST. GEORGE, UTAH — In 1953, the state of Arizona broke up a 385-person polygamous enclave that straddled its border with Utah, arresting all the men and placing the children with foster families.
A judge eventually ruled the action illegal, and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints returned to their homes. Now, 54 years later, the community numbers about 10,000.
But several observers believe that even without the physical presence of the man it believes is a prophet, the FLDS could be as resistant to pressure to conform to state laws as it was in the 1950s. And that, in Utah, plural marriage is not going away.
“Utah is a sanctuary for polygamists,” said Jay Beswick, who spent years as a children’s rights advocate investigating the FLDS. “I don’t recall ever seeing Utah as having the willpower to go after polygamy. It’s just beyond their capacity.”
Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff has targeted polygamous groups like the FLDS, but says that his office will not prosecute people solely for multiple marriages. With an estimated 37,000 residents living polygamous lifestyles, Shurtleff said in an interview, that would be impossible.
“Anytime a prosecutor is considering prosecuting a series of crimes, you have to consider your resources,” Shurtleff said. “We’ve got 4,000 jail beds in the state. They’d overwhelm our system.”
Instead, Shurtleff has settled for trying to stop underage marriages and abuse in polygamous communities. “It’s not something I’m happy with,” he said of the scaled-back approach.
Jeffs’ conviction involved an underage marriage — not a polygamous one. On Tuesday, the jury convicted Jeffs of being an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry Allen Steed, her 19-year-old cousin. The victim, now 21, testified that Steed forced her to have sex. On Wednesday, local prosecutors filed a rape charge against Steed and issued a warrant for his arrest.
The trial put a spotlight on the marriage practices in the sect run by Jeffs, where men commonly have multiple wives and dozens of children. Jeffs dictated pairings and performed marriage ceremonies that the state does not recognize as legal.
Utah’s polygamy is a partial legacy of the Mormon Church, which still practiced multiple marriages when it fled to the state in the 1840s from Illinois. But in 1890, the church ended polygamy as part of its push to gain statehood. The FLDS believes polygamy is core to its beliefs and that the Mormon Church wrongly gave in to public pressure.
The FLDS has virtually operated its own government on the Utah-Arizona border, where two communities meet at the state line and the sect has run the schools, city halls and police departments.
Speaking to church members in 2002, when the two states began to crack down on underage marriages, Sam Barlow, then marshal of FLDS-controlled Colorado City, Ariz.,told believers that those efforts conflicted with 1st Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion.
“We have challenged them on whether or not in a country where the Congress can make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise, whether a legislature can predetermine at what age a person can make a religious covenant,” Barlow said in a recording played last week at Jeffs’ trial.
Attorney Rodney Parker defended some FLDS men when they were under investigation by grand juries in Utah for taking part in underage marriages. “The men would say, ‘If I refuse to recognize the state’s authority to regulate marriage, they will put me in prison,’ ” Parker said. ” ‘But if I choose to capitulate and become an apostate, I would be damned. I will choose to go to prison.’ ”
Parker said that the state had a legitimate interest in protecting children, and that the 1st Amendment did not allow people to violate the law for religious purposes. But, he added, the FLDS believes that when the Mormon Church banned polygamy, it committed a mortal sin.
“It’s a real problem, and it may be an insoluble one,” Parker said of the conflict between FLDS beliefs and the law. If the state persists, “they will just drive the community and the practice underground and make it invisible.”
Those directing the campaign against the FLDS hope to change the group. Authorities have taken over Colorado City’s school district, decertified FLDS police and seized the trust in which the church held all community assets.
Greg Hoole, a Salt Lake City attorney handling several lawsuits against the church on behalf of youths who were exiled from the community or forced into underage marriages, said Jeffs had predicted the end of the world three or four times. When the apocalypse did not come, he shifted the timeline. “If he can go back on a doomsday prophecy,” Hoole said, “he can retract a bit on underage marriages.”
Though public attention has focused on Jeffs’ group, there are several other polygamist organizations in Utah.
The Kingston group, in the Salt Lake City area, owns several large businesses and a mine, and is relatively wealthy. The Allred group, also in northern Utah, frowns on child marriage. Smaller enclaves dot the deserts and mountains.
The persistence of polygamist groups is an embarrassment to many in Utah, especially the 70% who are Mormon. As the religion spreads and becomes more mainstream, the sects that practice multiple marriage are an increasing handicap, said Richard Cowan, a professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
“It’s more of a problem than say 50 or 75 years ago, when the Latter-day Saints were more of a regional group,” Cowan said.
Critics contend that polygamous families are also a drag on social services, with higher rates of child poverty. Some wives declare that they are unmarried to secure welfare benefits for their children.
Daniel S. Medwed, a law professor at the University of Utah, said that a lack of prosecutorial resources was not the only reason authorities were reluctant to go after polygamists.
“There’s also a strong strain of libertarianism that pervades Utah and the Mountain West,” Medwed said. “The idea of autonomy, freedom — religious and sexual — and minimal governmental interference.”
Former state Sen. Ron Allen, who wrote a bill in 2002 to stiffen penalties for forcing girls into multiple marriages, said he was heartened by steps state authorities had taken.
He said “word on the street” was that other polygamist groups had vowed to stop underage marriage amid the crackdown on the FLDS.
“They’re making tremendous progress,” Allen said of state authorities. But, he added, “I don’t think you can do anything about consenting adults. You’re just going to have to focus on specific criminal behavior.”
“This fundamentally started 150 years ago,” he said. “It’s going to take a few years to straighten it out.”