Polygamy: Former Wives Demand Action

Salt Lake Tribune/July 28, 1998
By Brian Maffly And Sheila R. McCann

Utah either should enforce its ban on polygamy or get the laws off the books, contends a Utah group of ex-wives who have fled plural marriages.

Tapestry of Polygamy on Monday urged Gov. Mike Leavitt to take a firm stand against the illegal practice of plural marriage. The women claim polygamy imprisons wives and children in exploitative domestic relationships.

``You have publicly implied that you have no intentions of enforcing anti-polygamy and bigamy laws, which is contrary to the obligations of your office,'' read the group's director, Vicky Prunty, from a letter to Leavitt. ``In the eyes of the honest law-abiding citizens of Utah, this is deplorable. We demand action.''

The group took its new hard-line stand in reaction to remarks by the governor last week at his monthly news conference. Leavitt suggested prosecution of polygamists has been shelved by Utah and other states for legal reasons. Plural marriage may be protected by the First Amendment as an expression of religion, he said.

That argument has been rejected repeatedly by the U.S. Supreme Court, notes University of Utah law professor Michael McConnell.

Although those decisions date back decades, McConnell said, ``even today, I suspect there would be no protection under the free-exercise [of religion] clause of the First Amendment.''

He added: ``Polygamists have a better shot under modern privacy doctrines . . . against a backdrop where the state does not prosecute people for cohabitation.''

A defendant could argue he was being singled out for unfair selective prosecution, pointing to the decades since the last prosecutions for adultery, fornication and polygamy, McConnell said.

More than a century ago, Utah outlawed polygamy as a condition for statehood after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints formally forbade the practice in 1890.

Some Utahns still take multiple wives, however, following what they believe are the true teachings of church founder Joseph Smith.

Though practicing polygamists face excommunication from the LDS Church, Utah authorities have not prosecuted anyone for polygamy since the 1950s.

The real obstacles to prosecution often are practical hurdles -- the difficulty of gathering evidence, other crimes that take priority.

``First, we couldn't get a jury to convict and second, we don't have the resources,'' said Paul Boyden, executive director of the State Association of Prosecutors. ``There's been no public outcry to do it.''

Proving polygamy would require firsthand evidence that usually is impossible to obtain, said Box Elder County Prosecutor Jon Bunderson.

``There's never anybody to testify,'' Bunderson said. ``You never have the evidence because no one ever complains.''

A successful prosecution probably would hinge on testimony from a polygamous spouse willing to work with authorities, Boyden said.

But that cooperation has pitfalls -- it could put the spouse at risk for prosecution, or jurors may discount testimony from a disgruntled witness, he said.

Jurors might reason, ``at least these people are making a pretense of marriage, rather than just shacking up,'' Boyden said.

Utah's Constitution states, ``polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.''

But no specific statute makes polygamy illegal, said Reed Richards, chief deputy Utah attorney general.

Instead, a polygamy prosecution probably would be filed under the state's bigamy law, he said.

Eliminating that law would halt legitimate prosecutions for fraudulent repeat marriages, he pointed out.

Tapestry of Polygamy interpreted Leavitt's remarks as official indifference toward a marital tradition that they contend forces teen-age girls into unwanted marriages with family members and chains them to a life of isolation.

``I had no civil rights as a child abused in my polygamist home,'' said Tapestry member Laura Chapman, the 27th in a line of 31 children. ``While the leaders were claiming religious freedom, the state of Utah was closing their eyes.''

Tapestry's letter to Leavitt added: ``We don't believe our Founding Fathers would ever have wanted abuse to be protected behind religious freedom.''

Vicki Varela, spokeswoman for Leavitt, said the governor reiterated that polygamy is against the law and has asked Atty. Gen. Jan Graham to provide a summary of her policies on prosecuting polygamists.

``He has stated before and states again, it is absolutely critical that any human-rights violations and abuse be aggressively prosecuted,'' Varela said.

Leavitt's freedom-of-religion comments have won applause from an unlikely source -- the American Civil Liberties Union, which long has contended the government ought to stay out of citizens' private lives.

``How are you going to go out and prosecute polygamists. . . . It's totally impractical,'' said Carol Gnade, director of the ACLU's Utah chapter. ``The governor couldn't have articulated the issues better. For abuses within that framework, they can be addressed with other criminal laws.''

Indeed, in a case that has spurred much of the current debate, Box Elder Prosecutor Bunderson will try a polygamist leader on a felony child-abuse charge for allegedly taking a belt to his 16-year-old daughter after she ran away from a forced marriage to her uncle.

The John Daniel Kingston case also brings attention to the lack of support for women and children trying to escape polygamous communities.

``We can't expect women to leave abusive relationships when they have nowhere to go,'' said Prunty, Tapestry's director. ``Blind faith should not be an alternative.''

The women said they recognize that evidence of abuse in polygamous relationships is difficult to obtain. ``Most of the groups live in secrecy. The women have no way to come out and take a stand,'' said group leader Carmen Thompson. ``It's not an easy fix, but we have to start somewhere.''

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