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.
Shurtleff’s office has also moved to dismantle a communal property trust owned by Jeffs’s sect in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. His office also is investigating the Kingston family, including seven brothers accused of incest who are thought to have fathered more than 600 children, informed sources said.
Shurtleff has secured commitments from four polygamist groups that they would abandon the practice of forcing underage girls into marriage, end the widespread practice of welfare fraud and create a more favorable environment for women in plural marriages to report domestic violence and child abuse.
“The things I am going after are crimes against children, rape and other types of abuse where there is a clear victim,” he said. Shurtleff persuaded Utah’s legislature to pass a specific law in 2003 on child bigamy, making it a second-degree felony punishable by one to 15 years in prison for a married adult to take as a second spouse anyone under 18.
Polygamy has deep roots in Utah’s history and in the history of the Church of the Latter-day Saints. Many mainstream Mormons once believed, and many fundamentalists still believe, that only men in plural marriages will get to heaven. But, to ensure Utah would get statehood, the Mormon Church swore off polygamy in the 1890s.
Even so, polygamous communities continued to exist through the American West and in Canada and Mexico. And in recent years, authorities in the state adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance, Shurtleff said.
One reason was that the politically powerful Mormon Church, while officially opposing polygamy, did not want the bad press strict enforcement might bring. Another reason was that law enforcement was worried that isolated polygamist communities would erupt in violence if raided. An internal memo at the Arizona attorney general’s office in 2002 spoke of a “Waco-level problem” among the polygamous communities along the Utah state line.
Shurtleff said he decided to confront polygamy’s darker side and leave the more mainstream communities alone. In 2001, one of Utah’s best-known polygamists, Tom Green, was prosecuted for and convicted of child rape for having sex with his first wife when she was 13.
“That’s what really started my focus on this,” Shurtleff said. “We can’t really allow crimes to be committed against children in the name of religion.”
Some polygamists said they welcome Shurtleff’s prosecutions.
“Jeffs needed to be stopped,” said Bonnie, a 20-something in a polygamist marriage who, like Valerie, declined to give her last name. (She said she has lost three jobs because of her polygamous background.) “I am glad they are prosecuting him.”
Bonnie, along with her husband, Nat, and his first wife and their three children, are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, which says it has 7,500 members across the West and in Mexico. Bonnie’s family lives in a suburban subdivision containing about 50 houses — all inhabited by members of the sect. Bonnie’s family has been polygamous since the 1860s. Nat was raised in a monogamous household but converted to Mormonism and decided to become a fundamentalist and a polygamist.
Bonnie said that what attracted her to polygamy was the chance it gave her to bond with women as well as with her husband.
“I always had an inner feeling that I’d be a plural wife,” she said. “I was very excited to join his family. I had a really good feeling with his first wife.”
Nat said he needed to be convinced. Far from the stereotype of the patriarch, he appears bookish and perhaps a tad meek. “Usually the women tend to be the biggest advocates of this way of life and men enter it more timidly,” he said. “If you are going to do it right, it’s a huge responsibility.”