ST. GEORGE — Attorneys general of Utah and Arizona told a two-state town hall meeting that they would not target polygamists solely for practicing plural marriage.
However, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told the crowd of about 350 Thursday night that they would pursue criminal charges against those involved in forced or underage marriages, sexual abuse and welfare and tax fraud.
That drew an angry reaction from polygamy opponents, who said the practice is against the law and the law should be enforced.
The meeting drew both polygamous families and those who oppose the practice. Some were in suits and ties, others in the pioneer-like dresses and elaborate braids common in the polygamous communities.
Polygamists contend they have a First Amendment right to practice plural marriage because it’s part of their religion. They also claim they’ve been unfairly targeted by prosecutors because they’re different.
“It’s never been about religion, but we certainly won’t sit back and let people commit crimes,” Shurtleff said.
Goddard said work still needs to be done in “breaking down decades of suspicion that have existed” between those who believe polygamy is the height of religious exhalation and those in the law enforcement communities and beyond.
“Many victims tell us that they’re afraid to speak out. They’re afraid of being shunned by their communities, or worse,” he said.
The meeting was about 50 miles from the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., which are dominated by the several-thousand member Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — one of the largest polygamous sects.
The two officials said that since a similar meeting about 1 1/2 years ago, their states have enhanced law enforcement, child welfare and victims’ rights support in the communities — but both conceded that their work was far from done.
Some at the meeting told the officials they needed to stop prosecuting polygamy or treat it as a misdemeanor, drawing broad applause.
“Believe it or not there’s a lot of happy women, and there are a lot of them here today,” said one woman who took one of the two-minute turns to speak in favor of polygamy.
The crowd reacted similarly when a woman suggested polygamy wouldn’t be so bothersome if the states would “cut back all this welfare and they had to support all these children” instead of receiving public assistance.
The two officials implored those in the audience to report abuse and cooperate with authorities to stop it — often a tall order in towns like Hildale and Colorado City, where members live in seclusion and distrust those on the outside.
“We can’t do anything without cooperation,” Shurtleff said. “We need witnesses and support.”
Polygamy was once a tenet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but was abandoned a century ago as a condition of statehood, and the church now excommunicates those who advocate it. Still, it’s believed that tens of thousands across the West continue to practice it.