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Polygamy back in spotlight

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Think of it, late-night television king Jay Leno joked to his NBC audience: think of the laborious role for a man who is husband to five wives in a plural marriage.

Leno stumbled over Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt's name, but with a wink and a chuckle told viewers the Beehive State's chief executive officer believes polygamy may be protected as a religious freedom.Polygamy. It is the bane of Utah's image.

This state's infamous - and illegal - polygamist culture was the butt of television jokes and radio discussions this week. Increasing national attention has been directed to the Mountain West since last week, when reporters asked Leavitt about the topic in his monthly televised news conference.

"Can you imagine having five wives?" Leno quipped on a show that aired Wednesday. "You'd have to see `Bridges of Madison County' five times; you'd have to see (the movie) `Hope Floats' five times . . . ."

Adding to the mix, a new "pro-polygamy" group emerged Thursday.

The Women's Religious Liberties Union rebuts reports of widespread abuse in the polygamy community and has threatened to sue the state for what it says is an unjust law making polygamy illegal.

"There are a lot of women in polygamy who are happy," said Mary Potter, a former polygamist wife who helped form the group.

Potter and other wives content in plural marriage planned a press conference Friday.

Meanwhile, Utah officials, who know the historical and religious complexities of this subject and subtleties in the state law that applies to polygamy, began to re-examine the way the state evaluates and enforces the law.

Leavitt reiterated his position Thursday.

"I think this can be used as an opportunity to make it clear: Whenever there's any kind of abuse . . . we should aggressively respond."

Polygamy has surfaced repeatedly in the local and national spotlight this week:

- There have been numerous requests to KUED for videotaped copies of the press conference taped July 23 in which Leavitt acknowledged plural marriages in his family tree and the tradition of polygamy in Utah. "For the most part, they are very hard-working, good people," he said.

The national Public Broadcasting System also requested a copy.

- Members of the Tapestry of Polygamy, a newly organized group of women who have fled polygamy, have been beseiged by calls from national press, including the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek magazine.

Vicky Prunty, a board member and former polygamist wife, was on Fox Television's national all-news program Thursday evening.

- Because of the flurry of attention, KUED officials will re-air "A Matter of Principle; Polygamy in the Mountain West," at 8 a.m. Saturday on Channel 7. The program was first produced by Ken Verdoia in 1990.

- A comprehensive report on the subject, written by longtime Utah journalist Mike Carter, was distributed throughout the country this week on Associated Press wires and ran in several national newpapers, including USA Today.

All the discussion is a good chance to more clearly define public policy, Leavitt said Thursday.

"This does not define our state," Leavitt said. "It is part of our history that endures."

Polygamy is woven into the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was renounced by the LDS Church in 1890, more than 100 years ago, but the practice has persisted among religious splinter groups and hasn't been prosecuted in more than 45 years.

But leave the subject's titillation to the national press, Utah officials say. Leave the soundbites, stereotypes and assumptions to someone else.

What is more important, they say, is to aggressively punish lawbreakers in this community and protect the women and children often ensconced in the culture of plural marriage.

"Crimes within the polygamist community can and must be prosecuted," Utah Attorney General Jan Graham wrote in a statement this week.

"The claim of religious freedom is no defense to the crimes of statutory rape, incest, unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, child abuse or cohabitant abuse."

It was a felony child abuse case that renewed attention in recent weeks.

John Daniel Kingston, 43, a businessman and prominent member of the northern Utah Kingston polygamist clan, is accused of whipping his 16-year-old daughter with a belt after she rebelled against an arranged marriage to his brother.

Police say the girl, her uncle's 15th wife, told them all she wanted to do was finish high school.

Box Elder County Attorney Jon Bunderson, who is prosecuting Kingston, is pragmatic about enforcing the anti-polygamy clause, as are most Utah prosecutors.

"All of this talk aside, this case isn't about polygamy," Bunderson told the Associated Press. "It's about child abuse and assault."

Attention to the subject in recent days illustrates again the difficult legal and cultural questions that come into play.

Who is responsible for enforcing polygamy laws?

Why should polygamy be treated differently from other illegal and unprosecuted crimes such as cohabitation?

Does the state want to crack down on the cultural practice or only on the well-publicized crimes that occur within this community?

How effective would a crackdown be in a culture where most women participants say there are no problems?

Still, some people ask: How can Utah sit by and allow the practice to continue? Why don't we prosecute?

The criminal laws are strong, Graham wrote, but the state must make it safe for victims to come forward.

"We have shown with domestic violence that secrecy, denial and fear can be dealt with to enable victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse to get to safety and to ensure that abusers are punished. The approach to women and children who are trapped within polygamy should be the same."

The members of Tapestry of Polygamy say the practice is inherently abusive - physically, emotionally and spiritually.

In addition, crimes of abuse are handled by city and county prosecutors, Graham said. The attorney general's office provides training regarding these crimes, and Graham said her office will initiate specific steps to focus prosecutors and law enforcement on the unique problems of victims in polygamy.

Leavitt said Thursday, "The attorney general has given it new attention, and that's a positive thing."

Law enforcement sometimes struggles in this arena.

Secrecy in the polygamist community makes it hard to accumulate evidence. And there are legal dilemmas, Leavitt said.

Six years ago, county attorneys met to decide whether to crack down on polygamy, he said. "Collectively and unanimously, they chose not to do it because of the problems it creates."

Law enforcers often point back four decades to illustrate practical problems enforcing polygamy. In 1952, federal and Arizona agents raided the Arizona side of the polygamist Hildale/Colorado City community located 50 miles east of St. George along the Utah-Arizona border.

In this case, men were jailed up to a year. Children were placed in foster care. Women would not testify against their husbands. When released, the men went straight back to the community.

The effort was widely considered an expensive, futile disaster.

Many women are happy in polygamy and the state of Utah should leave them alone, says former polygamist wife Mary Potter of the Women's Religious Liberties Union.

Because she is no longer in a plural marriage, Potter says she's speaking out for those who are too fearful to speak out for themselves.

The pro-polygamy group presented a "manifesto" today demanding the state legalize polygamy.

"We unequivocally declare that plural marriage is honorable and fulfilling and is as healthful to the lives of women and children as monogamous or single-parent family structures," the manifesto says. "As adult women, we have the right to order our lives as we see fit and say, `Leave us alone,' "

But women in the Tapestry of Polygamy have devoted weeks of effort to informing people about abuses within the culture.

Prunty, a Tapestry board member, had two polygamist husbands and said plural marriage makes slaves of women and officials should prosecute. Prunty says the whole dynamic of polygamy is abusive.

She praises the other group for being willing to speak out, but she thinks its members have blinders on.

"I don't see how there can be equality, and I believe abuse is much more prevalent in polygamous societies than in monogamous ones," Prunty said.

The Women's Religious Liberties Union said it also opposes the oppression of women and victimization of children. If polygamists are prosecuted for po-ly-ga-my, the group says, the state better prosecute "fornicators, adulterers, homosexuals, so-dom-i-zers, unwed mothers and those who perform acts of bestiality."

By most accounts, there are about 30,000 people living in plural marriages in the West. While in Utah many belong to larger groups like the Allreds or the Kingstons, others live quietly and independently.

One polygamist husband, who fears retaliation and asked not to be identified, lives in a home in Sanpete County with both his wives and their combined eight children. He agrees with Potter's group.

He was not reared in polygamy, nor were his wives. They call themselves "independents" and say they and their children are healthy and happy.

"I've seen incest and child and spouse abuse and physical abuse in monogamous homes. Polygamists don't have the monopoly on bad behavior," he said.

But he worries about a polygamy "witch hunt" brought on by the recent media spotlight. Still, he agrees with Graham that polygamists who abuse their children or wives should be prosecuted.

"I support anybody, the attorney general or the governor, in prosecuting crimes that harm other people, whether they are committed by polygamists or monogamists," he said. "If they beat their daughter senseless, they should be prosecuted."