One Arizona town puts on best face for polygamy critics

What grew in isolation and secrecy now wants a place in the sun. Polygamy. News of the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, is about the efforts of law enforcement to dig into allegations of child sexual abuse and other brutalities that offend common decency. It’s not about religion.

Getting to the bottom of these allegations is a continuing process that has led to numerous criminal indictments and the first-ever offer of a cash reward by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office for the capture of the polygamous cult’s fugitive “prophet,” Warren Jeffs.

But there is another polygamous community not far from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Colorado City/Hildale. This other community raises questions its residents say are about religion. And those questions will be far more difficult to answer.

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Centennial Park, home to about 1,000 believers of a fundamentalist brand of Mormonism who also practice polygamy.

Unlike their brethren in Colorado City/Hildale – many are related – they wear modern, but modest, clothing. They take pride in the quality of their schools, which include an eye-popping charter school and a private high school. They tout the educational attainment and career accomplishments of women whom they say thrive in the “liberating” and “uplifting” lifestyle of plural marriage.

In Centennial Park, residents say, children are allowed to grow into mature adults before making “marital choices.” The children I met there are well-spoken and praise an “awesome” lifestyle of growing up with a father, mothers and many siblings.

The people of Centennial Park say they are not like the FLDS in Colorado City, and they deeply resent being painted with the same brush by members of the national media who flock to the salacious story of Colorado City/Hildale’s child brides and “lost boys.”

Centennial Park likely would have remained in quiet isolation had Colorado City/Hildale not been thrust into the spotlight.

Now, the community raises big questions about civil rights and religious freedom, questions the larger society has ignored as polygamy grew in isolation and secrecy.

Centennial Park residents want polygamy decriminalized. They say plural marriage is ordained by their God, and they should not have to live under a stigma because they follow his religious teachings.

“His” teachings. A male God who ordained a patriarchal order is not at all like the female deity I embrace. But that’s what religious freedom is supposed to be about. To each her own.

Unless the practice called religion inches over into the kind of human rights abuses alleged in Colorado City/Hildale. Then it is no longer about free choice. Then it is no longer about religion. It’s coercion. And it’s not a private matter anymore.

Centennial Park’s residents insist that the abuses that brought Colorado City to the public’s notice – physical and sexual abuse of children, domestic violence – are not the product of a polygamous lifestyle. They are evils that occur whenever humans live with other humans.

A group of about 75 Centennial Park residents, mostly women, recently made an eloquent and sometimes passionate case for their way of life during an hours-long meeting attended by three outsiders: myself, Andrea Esquer, press secretary to Attorney General Terry Goddard; and Jane Irvine of Goddard’s office.

The women pointed out that the secrecy into which polygamists were driven by laws against the way of life practiced by early Mormons is a breeding ground for the sort of problems being investigated in Colorado City/Hildale.

By making polygamy a crime, a society that professes a belief in religious freedom has denied them the opportunity to take advantage of law enforcement, child welfare agencies and other resources that can deal with the evils that occur whenever humans live with other humans.

That’s what they say.

And their arguments are compelling.

But the isolation and the secrecy remain. The program they arranged for my benefit earlier this month was carefully orchestrated, and it came with strict rules. I was not to use last names, so I chose not to directly attribute the quote fragments that I included in this piece. I only saw what they wanted me to see.

This community is, indeed, reaching out and trying to open up. Its members are cooperating with the Dove Center, a domestic violence shelter in St. George, Utah, on a parenting program for families in Centennial Park.

But opening up presents challenges because by doing so, they expose themselves as practitioners of an illegal lifestyle. I can say the risk is small. After all, the attorneys general of both Arizona and Utah have said they will not prosecute consenting adults solely for practicing polygamy.

Law enforcement has its hands full with the allegations of evildoing in Colorado City/Hildale.

But the people in Centennial Park say they risk everything that really matters, their families, by being too public about an illegal lifestyle. What if child welfare agencies take their children? What if they lose their businesses? What if their husbands go to jail?

These women asked me to see them as people. And I did. They were clear-eyed, articulate, poised and gracious. Sometimes angry. They are not like the timid women in Colorado City who scurry for cover when a strange car rounds the corner and shoo their children away from the window when a “Gentile” walks by.

But the women of Centennial Park won’t condemn what’s going on in Colorado City/Hildale. They claim not to know the details.

But they also denigrate the women and children who left Colorado City/Hildale and now tell stories of the horrors they endured. The people I met in Centennial Park don’t judge Colorado City/Hildale. They do judge its victims.

The evils that have grown in the isolation and secrecy of other polygamous communities – in Colorado City/Hildale, women and children are considered to belong to the church, and are disposed of according to the whim of the “prophet” – deserve to be condemned. Soundly. Loudly. Passionately.

The vulnerability of women and children who live in a society, like Colorado City/Hildale, that places them below men in the hierarchy of living things cannot be dismissed.

Colorado City/Hildale’s challenges are huge.

The issues and questions that the community raises are about how to reach and rescue victims of a cruel cult. The questions are about how to rehabilitate broken people. How to inoculate others from similar evils. How to catch and punish those who victimized them. They are tough questions.

Centennial Park raises more philosophical questions about religious freedom and lifestyle choices. They are even tougher.

But before this larger society begins to address those questions, it will have to remember its own past.

This larger society of the United States of America will no longer tolerate some people being seen as inherently less worthy than others.

It will no longer tolerate seeing women and children abused. But it did once. This society once dismissed domestic violence as “family business” and child abuse as “discipline.” Rape used to be a woman’s fault. Incest was utterly denied. Father knew best.

The polygamous lifestyle, for all its religious trappings, is built on a foundation that does view men as inherently more worthy.

Maybe Centennial Park overcame that. Maybe it is the idyllic world described by polite, pretty and well-spoken children and well-educated women. Or maybe that was an illusion created for a journalist.

Centennial Park deserves a chance to be heard. But what it says will have to be proved, through openness, through interaction, through trust earned over time, before anyone should seriously consider decriminalizing polygamy.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Arizona Republic, USA
July 24, 2005
Linda Valdez
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 25, 2005.
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