Polygamy gains popularity; About 37,000 people in North America live with multiple marriages

Kingston Whig-Standard, Canada/April 9, 2008

The hundreds of women and children from a Texas polygamist compound shown streaming onto school buses over the weekend are the latest public face of polygamy.

But they're hardly the first.

The secretive communities of people with multiple marriages, usually religious, have had plenty of unwanted attention in recent years. Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who built the compound, is already awaiting trial. And the HBO show Big Love depicts a polygamist family in Utah.

For all that attention, it appears the number of people in polygamist communities has actually increased.

Polygamist marriages have been growing steadily since the 1800s, says Mary Batchelor, acting director of Principle Voices, a non-profit group that advocates for Utah decriminalizing polygamy. She says most polygamists are living within the general population. "You wouldn't be able to tell them apart from anyone else," she says.

There is no census data on polygamy, but Principle Voices estimates that there are 37,000 people, including children, who live in polygamy in the western United States and British Columbia. That's up from 30,000 in 2000, according to the group's informal survey of fundamentalist groups and independent fundamentalist families.

The largest known organized community is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, headed by Jeffs. That group, with about 8,000 members, broke from the Mormon church after the latter disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.

Most members of the fundamentalist group live in Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz., though they have been moving to other locations, says Batchelor. The polygamists say Joseph Smith, Mormonism's founder, was instructed to reintroduce the practice of polygamy into his family and his community.

Members of the Bountiful colony, located in southeastern B.C., also belong to a breakaway sect of the Mormon church and believe that in order to get into heaven, men must marry as many women as possible. There are also Christian and Muslim polygamists in the United States, along with immigrants from places where polygamy is common, such as certain areas of Africa.

While marriage to more than one person is illegal, enforcement varies from state to state, says Linda McClain, a professor at Boston University School of Law.

It's the underage cases that catch the most law enforcement attention.

In Canada, the B.C. government was urged this week to ask the B.C. Court of Appeal to decide whether criminal laws against polygamy are constitutional and able to withstand a challenge that multiple marriages fall under the right to freedom of religion.

In the U.S., Jeffs is awaiting trial for four counts each of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and their older male relatives.

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