Young Brides Stir New Outcry on Utah Polygamy

The New York Times, Feb. 28, 2003

SALT LAKE CITY, Feb. 27 — At the age of 15, Lu Ann Kingston was ready for marriage, or so her family elders decreed. They arranged for her to wed a 23-year-old distant relative, and she became his fourth wife, quickly bearing him two children.

Five years later, emboldened by a niece who had broken away from her own arranged marriage, Ms. Kingston gathered the children, called for a police escort and left.

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Now 23, Ms. Kingston said in an interview that teenage brides from fundamentalist Mormon homes are often told, as she was: “This is what the heavenly father wants, and they’re at an age they can’t run away because there is nowhere to go. There’s no way out.”

The accounts of Ms. Kingston — who has testified publicly — and other young women have prompted Utah, after years of ambivalence, to take a tough new look at polygamists who marry teenagers. The State Legislature is considering a bill that would impose stiff new penalties against any polygamist convicted of marrying a girl under 18 and any religious leader who orchestrates such a union. And the state’s attorney general is vowing vigorous prosecution.

“This is a deliberate effort to up the ante,” said the attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, conceding that state and local prosecutors have largely ignored prosecuting bigamists until now. “Hopefully this will impact the practice of polygamy and say to young girls that we’re not turning a blind eye to their plight.”

Bigamy has been a crime in Utah for more than 100 years, punishable by up to five years in prison. The new measure would toughen the penalties in the case of underage brides, bringing a polygamous husband or church leader arranging such a marriage up to 15 years in prison.

The House overwhelmingly approved the penalties on Tuesday, and the Senate is expected to take up the bill next week. Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican and a descendant of polygamists, has “not yet weighed in on the bill,” his spokeswoman said.

Despite its unlawful status, polygamy is thriving throughout Utah, practiced by fundamentalist Mormons who shun mixing with the outside world and live by traditions their ancestors brought west in the mid-1800’s. The number of people in polygamous families in Utah is estimated at perhaps as many as 50,000.

Separated by their beliefs from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which condemned polygamy as a condition of Utah statehood in 1896, fundamentalist Mormons believe that a woman exists to embody the spirit of her religious teachings and serve her husband, responsibilities that include bearing children as soon as possible.

Ron Barton, an investigator in the state attorney general’s office, said some fundamentalist groups believe that a girl’s first menstruation is a sign that she is old enough for marriage. Officials say some girls are believed to be married as young as 11. But in a state where 70 percent of the population is Mormon, many of polygamist ancestry, prosecutors have only rarely filed charges against members of plural families, saying they had more serious crimes to prosecute.

Mr. Shurtleff, a Republican who took office in 2001, drafted the proposed law and said passage would send a signal to county prosecutors that the state is eager to protect girls. “This is child abuse,” he said, “and it’s more widespread than I imagined.”

Polygamists and their supporters are opposing the proposal as religious persecution and are arguing that the problem is being overblown. Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City lawyer who represents the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the adjoining towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., said stories of young teenagers being forced into marriage were exaggerations.

“I don’t see it happening,” Mr. Parker said. “In rare instances, girls under 15 are married to other teenagers, but that is not common in the community I represent.”

Mr. Parker said the state should abandon its polygamy laws and do more to draw polygamists into mainstream society. But supporters of the toughened law and increased penalties say they are long overdue.

“We have to break this cycle and allow these young girls to make choices for themselves,” said Representative M. Susan Lawrence, a Republican who agreed to sponsor Mr. Shurtleff’s measure in the House. “Part of why we are focusing on this particular group is that young women are being used to perpetuate a lifestyle that is the choice of their parents, not their own.”

Under Utah law girls are free to wed after turning 16. At 15, they need consent of a parent and a local court. The state will recognize no marriage of anyone 14 and younger. In addition, state law makes it illegal for an adult to have sex with someone 16 or 17 if the adult is 10 years older and for an adult to have sex with someone 14 or 15 if the adult is 4 years older. Both are felonies, punishable with prison terms of up to five years.

Because of the secretive nature of fundamentalist communities, no one in Utah knows exactly how many people practice polygamy in the state. Rowenna Erickson, a former polygamist wife and co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a group that fights plural marriage, estimated the number at 50,000.

But state agencies do not keep records that identify residents as polygamists, and much of what is known comes from public statements from the occasional young woman who breaks away or from Mr. Barton, whose specialty is crimes in “closed societies.”

Ms. Kingston said she believed there are hundreds of girls in the same situation she faced as a young teenager, trapped in polygamist enclaves, some of which deny women the right to education beyond middle school.

She said the family she left includes 2,000 relatives, led by a Salt Lake City lawyer, Paul Kingston, who has 25 wives who have borne him 200 children.

Mr. Barton, who has investigated the Kingstons, said he has confirmed through state records and other sources that Mr. Kingston has 24 to 26 wives and at least 145 children and he believes there are probably more. “Women typically falsify the names of the father,” Mr. Barton said.

Mr. Kingston did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Kingston said Mr. Kingston, as the family patriarch and a fundamentalist church leader, selected one of his nephews to be her husband. He told her, as she recalled, “This feels right; this is what the Lord wants.” Ms. Kingston said she had no choice in the marriage, and only managed to leave after calling the local police and asking for protection against an irate husband.

She said relatives still inside the family have told her that clan elders have recently begun Sunday school classes for 12-year-olds, preparing them to become parents.

“The joke used to be that if you weren’t married by 17, you were an old maid,” she said. “Some want to be married. Some had to be. Girls are always trying to please. All they know is how to do what they’ve been told.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday February 28, 2003.
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