Some large fundamentalist groups who adhere to the religious tenets of polygamy say underage marriage is a thing of the past in their own communities, even if it continues to be practiced by others.
And for that reason, they believe they have nothing to fear from state officials.
"We have been reassured by the [Utah] Attorney General's Office that as consenting adults, we're not on their radar," said Dave Watson, spokesman for the Salt Lake-based Apostolic United Brethren (AUB).
Still, some fundamentalists are wary of tactics being used in a crackdown on followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and where the government actions may eventually lead.
In recent weeks, Arizona has charged eight FLDS men with various sex offenses involving young girls; officials also are pursuing conspiracy charges against FLDS leader Warren Jeffs for facilitating such marriages. Utah, meanwhile, is in the process of wresting control from the FLDS church over its United Effort Plan (UEP) Trust. The trust holds nearly all the property in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah; people residing there are considered tenants at will.
"It always sends fear among the communities because people know polygamy is against the law," said Mary Batchelor, a founder of the advocacy group Principle Voice of Polygamy, which works as an educational conduit between fundamentalists, government officials and the public.
Members of the Centennial Park Action Committee, for instance, are closely watching what happens with the church trust.
"If the anti-polygamists who are trying to get on the board of trustees for the UEP are able to do this, it could jeopardize the situation for anyone now living on UEP property, whether they are FLDS or not," said Marlyne Hammon, a spokeswoman for Centennial Park, a polygamous group located near the FLDS community at the Utah-Arizona border. "This could cause hate to run rampant and threaten the security and safety of innocent people."
As for marriage, critics say girls who grow up in the polygamous cultures are coerced into plural marriages or denied the opportunity, through religious instruction or community pressure, to reject the lifestyle.
Proponents of polygamy deny that, saying that it is a freely chosen way of life. Batchelor's group has worked over the past four years to educate fundamentalists who follow early Mormon teachings on polygamy about applicable state laws.
In 1999, the Utah Legislature raised the age at which a minor can enter a legal marriage from 14 to 16, though 15-year-olds may marry with approval from a juvenile court judge or commissioner. Last year, Arizona passed a child bigamy law, modeled after a Utah law, that makes it a crime for a married adult to take a second spouse who is under the age of 18.
Batchelor said confusion about state statutes persists. For example, some fundamentalists, she said, have mistakenly interpreted Utah's new law to mean that, with parental consent, a girl as young as 16 could enter a plural marriage.
"That's not true because they aren't legal marriages," Batchelor said.
The FLDS have not been receptive to the advocacy group's overtures. But other communities have, and either at the group's urging or their own initiative, have complied with or gone beyond legal standards on marriage.
The AUB has long recommended to its followers that girls be at least 18 years old before they enter marriage, Watson said.
"We don't even allow our kids to court until they are 17, 18 years old," he said.
Generations ago, as in the wider society, marriages occurred at younger ages, Watson said. Now, an occasional monogamous marriage takes place between girls as young as 17 and men of 19 or so.
But societal norms that have pushed up marriage ages are also affecting his group, Watson said. And today, the AUB "tries to encourage our kids to not get married until they graduate high school and get a year or two of college."
"We're not the cliquish, cultist type people you see [in Colorado City/Hildale]. We're very open," Watson said.
Regarding plural marriage, current AUB leader Lamoine Jensen is continuing a policy advocated in the past that women be at least 21 before entering such relationships.
"We don't want kids raising kids," said Watson, who estimates that about half of AUB's more than 5,000 members are involved in plural marriages.
The majority of men in those relationships "never take more than two wives," he said. "There are a lot of men who don't want to take that responsibility but subscribe to the early teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young."
At least two other major fundamentalist communities also say they have adapted to current laws and social norms: Centennial Park in Arizona and followers of Winston Blackmore in Canada.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said these groups have made public statements about their policies and "we don't have anything that would refute" those claims.
"These groups are not quite as closed as the FLDS but they are substantially closed and we have to trust that this is true," Shurtleff said. "It's a positive step forward for them."
Centennial Park, like the AUB, encourages girls to finish high school before they marry, which ensures that most are at least 18 years old, Hammon said.
"Because the authorities treat our girls with a double standard compared to girls in the monogamous world, we feel it is imperative that they wait until they are 18, even those girls who may wish to marry sooner," she said.
By custom, it is usually girls who take the initiative in choosing a mate, Hammon said, which affords the best chance of success for the marriage. The process begins with the girl first approaching her parents, then clergy and, if all those parties are supportive, the man she is interested in.
"This is usually the process for either a first or a plural marriage," Hammon said. "There may be variations, but this is most commonly the way our marriages happen."
Marriage practices within one of Utah's polygamist communities, the Kingston group, remain the most controversial because of their acceptance of relationships between closely related family members - including half siblings and first cousins - and a widely publicized 1998 case in which a 16-year-old girl was beaten by her father after fleeing a marriage to her uncle.
Rachel Young and Carlene Cannon of the Davis County Cooperative Society, founded by the Kingstons, said most young people in their group wait until they've finished high school and entered college before marrying, though it is not a set policy.
Many teens in the group are able to finish high school at least a year early, also completing two years of college by that time. As with Centennial Park, Cannon said girls make final decisions about whom they marry.
"The main policy is free agency," Cannon said. "We try to let the people know it is their choice, but they need to have the maturity and feel ready to take that step."
Young says the society's adherence to freedom of choice extends to intermarriage between family members, which remains troublesome for the state.
"That is one area where you've got a different crime involved than polygamy and those may be charged in the future, even if they are adults," Shurtleff said.