Strange days in Utah

Why did a Mormon sect take its kids out of school?

Newsweek/November 13, 2000
By Andrew Murr

Situated in the remote desert along the Utah-Arizona border, the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, are the longtime redoubt of a breakaway Mormon sect that still practices polygamy 110 years after it was banned by the mainstream Mormon Church.

The sect, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is run by a self-proclaimed prophet and "Mouthpiece of God" named Rulon Jeffs, who is 90 years old and reported to have somewhere between 19 and 60 wives. (An attorney for Jeffs confirms he has plural wives.) To followers, Jeffs's words have the force of law, and they paid close attention last July when the prophet's son, Warren Jeffs, told "the Priesthood people" to separate themselves from "the apostates" around them. In September, the rest of the community found out what Jeffs meant-attendance at local schools suddenly dropped by 75 percent when the sect decided to educate nearly 1,000 children at home.

To church elders like Daniel Barlow, the mayor of Colorado City, the issue is simply that "the public schools won't let us teach about our heritage." But the mass withdrawal remains largely a mystery to outsiders.

Some see it as a symptom of the rising tension between true believers and civil authorities on the question of polygamy itself. "If they send their kids to school, then people ask questions" about their lifestyle, says Carol Lear, a lawyer for the Utah Office of Education. Although it is illegal everywhere, polygamy is still practiced by half a dozen Mormon splinter groups in Utah and other Western states; between 20,000 and 50,000 people now live in polygamous families. Consecrated by sect leaders as "celestial marriages," these unions are not recognized by law, although authorities have long followed an informal policy that resembles "don't ask, don't tell." "Some of these clans are so patriarchal, so closed, that it's difficult to get state agencies to respond," says Roz McGee, head of the policy group Utah Children.

That is now changing, principally because officials have recently been acting on polygamy-related claims both inside the Jeffs group and beyond. In Colorado City, cops are investigating allegations by a mother named Lenore Holm who claims that Jeffs's church officials ordered her to leave her home on church property because she complained to church leaders about a celestial marriage they had arranged for her daughter, 16. Church attorney Rod Parker denies the story. Outside the Jeffs group, a 16-year-old Salt Lake City girl was whipped by her father for refusing to become her uncle's 15th wife in 1998; both father and uncle were prosecuted, and the uncle got 10 years in prison for incest and unlawful sexual conduct.

More recently, Utah authorities in Nephi charged Thomas Green, 51, with four counts of bigamy, criminal nonsupport and the rape of a child under 14-a 13-year-old girl who in 1986 became one of his five wives. (Green has pleaded not guilty on all charges.) The prosecutor, David Leavitt, is outspoken. "It is my belief that child sex abuse, criminal nonsupport and bigamy are the triple crown of the practice of polygamy," Leavitt said.

So for now, at least, school officials are biding their time. At Phelps Elementary School in Hildale, principal Max Tolman tours the empty classrooms and points with pride to the 23 new iMacs lined up in the underused computer lab. The school's enrollment dropped from 230 to 96. But "the people who are here now," he says, in a wan attempt at optimism, "are very interested in education." Thank heaven for small favors.

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