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Primer seeks to break down stereotypes of polygamy

Utah's polygamous families have helped create a revamped guidebook called The Primer that they hope will help combat what they consider to be myths and stereotypes about their culture.

The 65-page booklet is designed to give social workers, police and other service providers a better understanding of the tenets of polygamist's beliefs, unique family structures and even their language.

"We're going to continue to have those situations, but that doesn't mean that we can sit by when we are perceived incorrectly and not speak up," said Anne Wilde of Salt Lake City, a plural wife for 33 years and now a widow. "By having a primer that has our input and expresses things the way we want to have them expressed I think is very helpful. It gives us a voice."

Bigamy is illegal in Utah and Arizona, where most of the Intermountain West's polygamists live. But Utah authorities have rarely prosecuted adults, focusing instead on crimes involving women and children.

Historically, fear of prosecution has kept most plural families from seeking public services. When they did, service providers often tried to "rescue" them from their religion, Wilde and other polygamists say.

Released last week at a training conference, the Primer was produced by the Safety Net Committee, an outreach program working with polygamous communities and public and private service agencies in Utah and Arizona. The guide is an updated version of one produced in 2005 by the Utah Attorney General's office.

Polygamists believed the first Primer unfairly portrayed them as victims trapped in religious groups where abuse permeated the culture.

The rewrite sought to find more neutral language and to show that plural families face many of the same challenges as other families. In drafting the new version polygamous groups were asked to clarify or correct information about their specific cultural practices, Safety Net Committee Coordinator Pat Merkley said.

The Primer's information also includes a history of polygamy in the Intermountain West, a glossary of terms and concepts, and a description of the various groups and their respective leadership structures.

"I think we're speaking in their language and in their terms," she said. "This is the best work we could possibly do. It's as neutral as it could be, and people are still not going to like part of it."

The information from polygamous groups is balanced against input from critics of the culture, definitions of abuse and an overview of the Utah and Arizona laws that make polygamy illegal.

Still, just having it makes a difference, said Merkley, a licensed social worker who had no such blueprint when she first began working with plural families some 20 years ago.

"It would have made me be culturally sensitive and aware and alert," she said. "When I did work with plural families it was a challenge to even know the language they were speaking."

Among the terms and practices defined in the Primer:

Reassignment: The practice of giving an excommunicated man's wives and children to another man. Some polgyamists believe wives and children belong to the church, not the husband.

Law of Placement: A type of arranged marriage that sometimes has involved underage girls. Couples are matched by church leaders after consultation with parents. Currently leaders of all the major group have denounced underage marraige.

United Order: A system of communal living that calls for families to share their earning and serve others in the community.

Terms and practices can also vary depending on which polygamous group a family is from, said Mary Batchelor, a Safety Net committee member, who with Wilde founded the polygamy advocacy group Principle Voices.

"I don't think there was a single word or single sentence that did not get argued," Batchelor said of the new guide. "I think there's always still the risk that (the information) can stereotype people, so we stress that it's really important to ask individuals families, 'Does this apply to you?'"

Polygamy across the Intermountain West is a legacy of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which brought the practice to Utah in 1847. The LDS Church abandoned plural marriage in 1890 as Utah pushed for statehood and now excommunicates those who advocate or practice the principle. Fundamentalists continue to believe polygamy is essential for exaltation in the next life.

A survey by Principle Voices found an estimated 37,000 self-described Mormon fundamentalists live across the Intermountain West and western Canada who either live or believe in polygamy.

Most don't affiliate with any group, but the Primer identifies 11 distinct polygamous communities ranging in size from about 150 to 10,000.

"I think it's appropriate to call us a culture," said Batchelor, whose own plural family was fractured by a divorce. "This guide is going to be a really good resource for people willing to check their biases at the door and treat clients from polygamy like clients from any other culture."