St. George, Utah -- The trial of the leader of the largest polygamist sect in the United States is forcing people in Utah, where polygamy has a long history, to confront a practice that many would prefer stay hidden.
Opening statements are expected to begin on Thursday in the trial of Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a secretive sect of 7,500 members who practice polygamy or what they call plural marriage.
He is accused of being an accomplice to rape by masterminding a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her cousin.
The case has brought fresh national attention to polygamy and renewed debate in Utah about the practice. Reactions in the state vary from embarrassment and disbelief to support and pleas for tolerance.
The Mormon religion, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City, originally promoted polygamy and its founder, Joseph Smith, took at least two dozen wives. But the church renounced it in 1890 and now strongly opposes the practice.
As the Jeffs case brings it back into the open, many in Utah scorn what they see as a backward tradition, a view that supporters deem is unfair.
"The ones that are hardest on us are the ones who had it in their background in the first place," said Ross Chatwin, a former sect member with only one wife who has criticized Jeffs but supports the polygamous culture. "It's almost like it's an embarrassment to them -- they wished it never happened. They want it to go away and they want it to disappear."
Eric Wardell, 24, a college student, said he can't see a positive side to polygamy.
"I don't understand why it's not prosecuted," Wardell said. "It's hard not to assume they're not in it for the wrong reason. I'm suspicious of perverted intentions."
'Happy, Consenting' Families
Jeffs, who was arrested in August after a highly publicized 15-month manhunt, is not charged with polygamy, although the practice is illegal in Utah. He faces two felony counts that could bring life sentences and has pleaded innocent.
Some supporters are coming forward to defend polygamy. They say it helps build stronger families, and multiple wives makes childcare easier for mothers who hold jobs.
"The fact is there are so many happy, consenting adult families that people just don't pay attention to," said Anne Wilde, co-founder of pro-polygamy group Principle Voices, and a widow from a polygamous marriage of 33 years. "Polygamy itself is not automatically abusive or controlling."
About 37,000 people in western U.S. states subscribe to polygamy, experts say. Jeffs' sect is based in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona -- a dusty area some 100 miles northwest of the Grand Canyon.
"In our eyes they're breaking a commandment, but they're still a child of God," said Cindy LaFollete, a Mormon missionary. "We believe marriage is ordained between a man and a woman. But everyone is free to make their own choices."
Jeffs' fundamentalist enclave lived for years without outside scrutiny or interference from authorities although exiled or escaped members reported crimes such as widespread welfare and tax fraud, underage marriages and sexual abuse.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has said he cannot prosecute polygamy for lack of resources and instead is concentrating on crimes against minors, domestic violence, and tax and welfare fraud within the communities.
Moreover, there is little political or public will in Utah to go after polygamists who otherwise obey the law, he said.
"Most people seem to say, 'If you're an adult and you enter into this relationship and there isn't abuse going on...' 'Live and let live' is kind of the attitude," Shurtleff said.
Greg Cassingham, a 49-year-old glazier from Provo, Utah, disagreed.
"Socially, I don't think it's acceptable," he said. "Plus, a guy's got to be crazy to have more than one wife."