Meeting brings polar views on polygamy

St. George meeting: The forum attracts a divided crowd, including attorneys general of two states and both sides' advocates

Salt Lake Tribune/March 4, 2005
By Brooke Adams

St. George -- Some called for polygamy to be decriminalized. Others suggested all polygamists should be prosecuted.

Those two views framed a wide-ranging public forum on polygamy Thursday night designed to highlight Utah and Arizona's efforts to address domestic violence and child abuse in the communities that straddle their borders.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard recounted their efforts during the past 18 months to reach out to polygamists with services and assistance. Among the achievements: increased funding for law enforcement, social services and domestic violence help.

They also renewed pledges to crack down on abuse and criminal activity while not targeting the lifestyle itself.

''We will not target any group or people because of their religious beliefs,'' Shurtleff said. ''But we will not sit back and allow people to commit crimes in the name of religion.''

Prosecuting those crimes takes willing witnesses with concrete evidence to share with law enforcement, he said.

The forum, organized by Hope for the Child Brides of St. George, drew about 300 people and featured dozens of differing perspectives on the controversial lifestyle held as a religious obligation by tens of thousands in Utah.

David Berns, director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, and Todd Minchey, regional director for the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, also described their offices' outreach efforts.

Goddard called the gathering an "historic event" aimed at breaking down "decades of hostility and suspicion."

The forum drew representatives of the largest polygamous groups - Centennial Park, Apostolic United Brethren, the Davis County Cooperative Society and even a contingent from Creston, British Columbia, led by Winston Blackmore.

Marlyne Hammon, a member of the Centennial Park Action Committee, said that since a smaller summit in August 2003, officials from both states have shown a willingness to listen.

"We've been able to have a voice," she said. "How much they respond, I don't know, but at least they listen."

Based on Thursday's hearing, though, state officials are getting divergent messages about polygamy.

Several audience members asked the states to bring the lifestyle out of the shadows by decriminalizing it, making polygamy a misdemeanor on par with fornication or adultery.

''There are many, many happy families living this lifestyle,'' said Anne Wilde, of Principle Voices of Polygamy.

Carolyn Spinelli, who moved to Cedar City six years ago from New Jersey, suggested the ''fanatical leaders'' be tossed and the lifestyle left alone.

''If you would just open your mind, take away these fanatical leaders, polygamy is a wonderful thing,'' she said.

One man called polygamy an ''ancient dinosaur that is on its way out,'' drawing laughs from the audience. The number of fundamentalists has grown greatly since 1953, when the state of Arizona staged a disastrous raid on what was then known as Short Creek, (now Hildale, Utah), and Colorado City, Ariz.

Several asked why, since polygamy is a crime, the states aren't moving to eliminate it. ''What I hear is whether they are polygamists or murderers, you don't have the resources to go after them,'' one woman said.

Another woman suggested the states go after the communities' leaders. Ben Bistline, author of a history of the polygamous community of Colorado City, said authorities ought to target practicing polygamists on the town's police force, which he termed a "joke."

''How many of you want us to arrest every polygamist in this state and put them in prison? Who is willing to pay for all the children who would become wards of the state?''

Asked why the states were ''selectively'' prosecuting bigamists, Shurtleff said the focus is on crimes, including bigamy, particularly when they involve children.

''We're not interested in condemning a lifestyle here,'' Goddard added.

Several audience members said the state is not offering enough aid to people caring for teens who have left or been turned away from the polygamous communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

Representatives of several groups shared educational efforts in their communities. Carlene Cannon of the Davis County Cooperative Society said her group recently invited child welfare and law enforcement representatives to meet with their community, following the example of the Centennial Park Action Committee.

The Centennial Park group, working with Utah and Arizona officials, has held numerous community education sessions on child abuse and domestic violence.

Hammon's view after the meeting? "It was a wonderful effort, but there is a lot of misunderstanding that still needs to be cleared up."

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