In Polygamy Country, Old Divisions Are Fading

New York Times/September 10, 2007

St. George, Utah — For generations of rural religious polygamists like those Warren S. Jeffs once led, this was the big town and the citadel of sin all in one.

St. George, founded on the southern route to California in wagon train days, was the place to buy groceries or spend an occasional night out. But it was also the local fortress of mainstream Mormonism, which is vehement in its opposition to polygamy.

The polygamists, in turn, looked down on Mormons as apostates who lost their way more than 100 years ago by denouncing polygamy, and thus the teachings of the church's founder, Joseph Smith, in a political compromise to achieve statehood for Utah.

Now Mr. Jeffs is being tried on felony charges that he was an accomplice to rape in arranging polygamous marriages between under-age girls and older men, and the jury is being drawn from a pool of St. George residents.

The trial is expected to throw a sharp light on polygamy and on the culture of Mr. Jeffs's group in particular, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is estimated to number about 10,000 people throughout the West. Jury selection began Friday, and Mr. Jeffs, 51, could face life in prison if convicted.

The old and bitter history of intra-Mormon relations hangs over everything here. But many people said the divisions were not what they once had been. Even as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon Church is known, has cracked down on polygamy in recent years, an intermingling of cultures has begun to bubble up here, opening hearts and minds in greater understanding, if not quite tolerance.

Economics, not religion, is driving the change.

St. George and Washington County have exploded with growth over the last 10 years, as retirement and tourism melded with the draw of Las Vegas, about two hours away. For years, the county has ranked near the top of the nation in its rate of expansion.

In the polygamist communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., which Mr. Jeffs presided over as a prophet of God, according to his followers, family-based construction companies dominate business. St. George, about 35 miles away, grew and changed, drawing more non-Mormons than ever before, and polygamist builders were often the ones framing rows of new homes and pouring concrete foundations.

And so the two sides got to know each other better. Some people here said that they hated what they had read about Mr. Jeffs, but that they had come to like some of the polygamists they had met.

"Awesome workers," said Aaron Svedin, who works in quality control in a vitamin manufacturing plant in St. George where three young men from polygamist families have recently been hired. The first started as a mechanic, and Mr. Svedin, a member of the Mormon Church, said the other two were hired because the first man worked out so well.

Mr. Svedin, 38, said he thought he could be fair in judging Mr. Jeffs if he had been called as a juror, partly because he had gained a broader sense of the people in Mr. Jeffs's world.

"I hope Warren Jeffs gets a fair shot," Mr. Svedin said.

Few people in fundamentalist polygamy communities will talk to a reporter, let alone be interviewed. In Centennial Park, Ariz., about an hour southeast of St. George, one construction-business owner agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. He said that he had done jobs in St. George and that the town was a different place now.

"St. George had to grow up," the man said. "They needed the help as they grew, and capitalism takes over very fast."

Thousands of newcomers to St. George, Mormon or not, have also diluted the community's opposition to polygamy in ways that could potentially affect the jury, residents said.

Amber Clark, 28, an Army veteran who moved here from California about two months ago and who described herself as an active Mormon, said she thought polygamists should be left alone, so long as no one was under age or coerced into marriage.

"I'm liberal in that respect," Ms. Clark said. "If it's legal in some states for people of the same sex to get married, why is it not legal to marry more than one wife?"

Some polygamist communities are responding to the new environment as well.

Earlier this year, for example, a cafe called the Merry Wives opened in Hildale, acknowledging plural marriage, something that probably would not have happened as recently as a year or two ago, said the manager, Charise Dutson.

A mural on the restaurant wall depicts three women working together in an idyllic, sun-drenched garden. Waitresses in long skirts serve breakfast. Most of the business comes from curious travelers on the highway, said Ms. Dutson, 35, but locals have increasingly warmed to the idea that it is acceptable not to fear outsiders so much.

"We are who we are," Ms. Dutson said. "We're proud of our heritage."

The increasing contact is also building confidence that life after Mr. Jeffs, no matter what happens at the trial, will be different.

Paul Hanson, who lives in a fundamentalist community about an hour from St. George and works for a building products company, said he had come to understand that the Mormon splinter groups and the Mormon Church, based in Salt Lake City, shared the same flaw: they want their members to think a certain way.

"The reason I haven't joined any of the groups, even the Mormon Church, is that there's not enough freedom," Mr. Hanson said. "You can't express your own opinions."

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