SALT LAKE CITY -- Owen Allred is stabbing the air with an index finger and raising his voice like a preacher in the pulpit.
''Most of the world feels that plural marriage is just so man can have more sex,'' he says, angry that his 6,000-member Apostolic United Brethren church, one of the largest polygamous sects in North America, is linked with lascivious behavior. Pause.
''And,'' he says, exhaling a deep breath, ''I hate to admit it, too many men marry for that purpose. Then when they have a family, they don't take care of it.''
Around this mountainous, snow-dusted wonderland, founded 153 years ago by a revered Mormon and polygamist named Brigham Young, Allred, 86, who's married to eight women between the ages of 68 and 97, is the granddaddy of modern-day polygamy. He prefers calling it ''plural'' or ''celestial'' marriage. Makes a felony sound less damning.
In what some say is a rushed effort to polish Utah's image before the 2002 Winter Olympic Games here, state lawmakers are attempting to clean up a thriving practice about which proponents and critics alike complain. Polygamy, long ago popular for procreation among Old Testament prophets and elders of the Mormon Church, is today described as a cesspool of spousal abuse, sexual abuse, forced marriage, child neglect, and tax and welfare fraud.
This month, state Sen. Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park, will reintroduce a bill that would give the state attorney general's office $500,000 to ferret out abuses and establish a telephone hotline and emergency shelter for women and children who want out of polygamy.
It's not much, Allen says, but it's a start. ''I want all children to have a level playground on which to start their life,'' he says. ''We are not going to stand by and let Utah take this black eye any longer.'' Even the authoritative Allred, a man boastful of his lineage of polygamists -- including his father, Byron Harvey Allred, once speaker of the House in the Idaho Legislature -- thinks Utah officials need to investigate. He says his church, known in these parts as ''The Allred Group,'' should not be exempt.
''I love this (group of) people, but, oh, we've got some stinking problems. They stink to high heaven,'' Allred says, wincing as if in pain. ''It is against the rules of our religion entirely to have intercourse with a woman who is not your wife. But, my gosh, there are so many of our people who will have intercourse with anyone. And even we've had problems with men being cruel to their wives and cruel to their children.'' Six years before Utah was granted statehood in 1896, the Mormon Church voted to conform to U.S. law and forbid polygamy. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicates members who remain loyal to its fundamentalist roots and enter plural marriages -- usually in stealth ceremonies and with no legal documents.
For the initial marriage, a polygamist typically seeks bureaucratic sanction -- the blood tests, marriage license and tax breaks. Subsequent marriages are ''spiritual unions,'' blessed only by the polygamous sect or family.
Because of its secrecy, polygamy is difficult to prosecute. Legally, it usually amounts only to adultery, says Utah's chief deputy attorney general, Reed Richards.
And there's no public outcry for police to knock on the bedroom doors of consenting adults, not even from polygamy's most vocal critics. ''We just want the abuses stopped,'' says Vicky Prunty, a former polygamous wife and a founding member of Tapestry of Polygamy, a 2-year-old support group for ''refugees'' of polygamous marriages. She describes polygamy as a hybrid of Gospel and slavery that leaves women brainwashed and subservient. ''I believe people should be allowed to believe whatever they want but not practice whatever they want,'' she says. ''There's a difference between religious freedom and religious abuse.''
Polygamy was flourishing quietly in a climate increasingly tolerant of diverse lifestyles when a sensational case of incest attracted national attention two years ago.
David Ortell Kingston, a 33-year-old Salt Lake City accountant, was convicted of incest and unlawful sexual conduct with his 16-year-old niece -- his 15th wife. He was given the maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
His older brother, John Daniel Kingston, pleaded no contest to child abuse for belt-whipping his teenage daughter after she fled the marriage. He received a 28-week sentence. The union had been blessed by the Kingstons' Latter Day Church of God, an affluent Mormon splinter group with about 1,000 members.
An investigation that year by The Salt Lake Tribune revealed several cases of Kingston-sect leaders marrying half-sisters, first cousins, nieces and aunts under the guise of religion.
Last year, Allen's polygamy bill stalled during a budget feud between Utah's Republican-led House of Representatives and state Attorney General Jan Graham, a Democrat. This year, with the Olympics looming and media attention mounting, Allen believes that the bill will pass.
Fundamentalist Mormon and historian Ogden Kraut, a polygamist himself, estimates there are 30,000 to 35,000 polygamous family members in the USA, the majority of whom are in Utah.
Allen believes that Kraut's figures are low. He says there are probably 50,000 polygamous family members in Utah, most blending in perfectly with mainstream society.
When Alex Joseph, a Coast Guard commander and founding mayor of Big Water, Utah, died at age 61 in 1998, he left eight widows. At his funeral, four military planes flew in his honor.
Plural marriage is popular in concept, maybe even fodder for male fantasy, but, Allred says, it is ''very difficult.'' He says 80% of the men in his church choose monogamy.
''It takes twice as good a man to have two wives as it does to have one,'' says Allred, the father of 23 grown children. ''If you have three wives, it takes five times as good a man to do it -- if you are going to have harmony in your family.''
His Apostolic United Brethren church soon may require its male members to prove financial and moral responsibility before entering into plural marriage.
It's feared that among the congregation such an idea is tantamount to blasphemy. To thousands of fundamentalist Mormons, plural marriage is a God-given right and a key into the highest chambers of heaven.
''Oh, they're not going to like it, not one bit,'' Allred says of his plan.
''But what too many of them don't understand is this: There are more men damned for trying to live celestial marriage than there will ever be saved.''
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