After raid, other polygamists fear they're next

The Arizona Republic/June 1, 2008

Centennial Park - Like many polygamous residents along the Arizona Strip, Marvin Dockstader is adding to his house, more than doubling its size to make room for wives and children.

He admits being nervous about the future.

Authorities in Texas rounded up members of a polygamous sect in April, taking custody of more than 400 children. The Senate majority leader called for federal agents to go after religious groups that practice plural marriages. And, just a mile from Centennial Park in Colorado City-Hildale, prosecutors from Utah and Arizona have been dogging a polygamist group for years.

While not a member of that sect, Dockstader feels pressure building as politicians talk of conducting anti-bigamy enforcement with Texas-style zeal.

"It's definitely headed that way," he said. "That could be us as easy as them."

But while Dockstader and others in this community of 2,000 harbor such fears, there are two reasons why law enforcement is unlikely to target them:

  • They belong to a church, The Work of Jesus Christ, that publicly eschews child marriages - a practice that authorities alleged in moving against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Colorado City and Eldorado, Texas.
  • Polygamy law in Arizona is fuzzy. Arizona's Constitution bans polygamy but lists no punishment.

Arizona's criminal code makes bigamy a crime, but unlike in Utah and Texas, it does not outlaw plural cohabitation.

Because polygamists here are wedded spiritually, rather than with marriage licenses, they are not technically breaking the law. "Arizona's Constitution is very clear, but I can't prosecute based on the constitution," Attorney General Terry Goddard says. "I can only prosecute based on the laws passed by the Legislature."

Arizona's and Utah's enforcement campaigns against the FLDS sect involved other crimes, especially sexual conduct with children. Meanwhile, Goddard has maintained an open diplomacy with the more modern polygamist group in nearby Centennial Park.

A different sect

The Work of Jesus Christ split with the FLDS about 24 years ago in a leadership dispute. Neither is affiliated with the mainstream Mormon Church. Although members of the two fundamentalist groups are mostly kin, family ties are severed.

Folks here own a restaurant on Arizona 389, aptly named the Merry Wives Cafe. They wear contemporary clothes and mix with the outside world. They surf the Internet, watch Dr. Phil on TV and root for the Diamondbacks.

But they share the FLDS faith that men and women are married for eternity and that plural unions are a key to salvation. Some also share a chronic anxiety about being imprisoned for those beliefs. Several declined interviews, and others who gave them expressed those fears.

"The fear is that the law (or a constitutional clause) could be applied at any time," says Mary Batchelor of Salt Lake City, co-author of Voices in Harmony, a book featuring women's perspectives on polygamy. "They (prosecutors) want the law so they can use it when they want or at least hold it over our heads."

Dockstader, a 43-year-old building contractor, is among the few Centennial Park residents willing to be identified in a newspaper story. He won't reveal how many wives live in his house, saying only, "I have one civil marriage."

Like others in his church, Dockstader insists that the typical household in Centennial Park is a sanctuary of unselfish sharing and love, contradicting perceptions that plural marriage is about sex, enslavement or child abuse.

Watching some of his kids bounce on a trampoline in the backyard, Dockstader says recent enforcement efforts typify more than a century of persecution.

"Bigotry and all this animosity, it's really creeping up," he says. "It's hypocritical. America was created by people running from that."

Asked if he believes the attorneys general in Arizona and Utah when they promise not to prosecute polygamy, Dockstader shakes his head. "No. They're not in control."

Who is in control then?

"The mob," he says, referring to a public that hates polygamy.

Historical backdrop

Centennial Park's devotion to polygamy is rooted in Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith's revelation on plural marriage. That 1831 event eventually prompted political and legal battles.

Beginning in the 1860s, Congress adopted a series of federal laws criminalizing polygamy in U.S. territories. The crackdown forced Mormon believers into hiding or jail, erased voting rights and wiped out the church's finances.

In a landmark 1879 case known as Reynolds vs. United States, the Supreme Court upheld felony statutes against bigamy. Congress later passed the Edmunds Act and other laws designed to crush plural marriages. The campaign largely succeeded in 1890 when the main Mormon Church adopted a decree against polygamy. Arizona and Utah became states but only after agreeing to the special provision in their constitutions.

Not all Mormons embraced monogamy. Splinter sects maintained a doctrine of "celestial unions," and one such group moved to Short Creek, an isolated town where residents could dodge state laws by hopscotching from Arizona to Utah and back.

After years of sporadic enforcement, in 1953, more than 100 peace officers and National Guard soldiers descended on the community, taking children from parents. Twenty-three men were sentenced to probation for conspiracy, but public sentiment turned against authorities and destroyed the political career of Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle.

Over the next half century, Short Creek (now Colorado City and Hildale) was largely ignored by outsiders but suffered internal conflicts. A schism in the mid-1980s led to the rival sects.

Texas justice

When Texas authorities in April raided the FLDS' new refuge, the YFZ Ranch in Texas, they reported that 60 percent of the sect's teenage girls had babies or were pregnant.

CPS workers took custody of about 440 minors, claiming every child was in imminent danger because of a widespread practice of forcing underage girls to become brides. Last week, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the roundup was improper. The case has refueled a national debate on polygamy and the law. On one hand, government officials have a duty to prevent crime and protect endangered children. On the other, the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court rulings guarantee religious freedom, privacy and due process.

Many critics of polygamy say the practice leads to a host of ills, including child sexual abuse, oppression of women and welfare fraud.

"Polygamy is inherently wrong and bad," says Flora Jessop, a Phoenix child-protection advocate who was raised in Colorado City. "There's emotional and psychological abuse that occurs no matter how you live it. You get a bunch of women, and it turns into catfights and abuse of each other's children because of jealousy.

"And the guys are corrupted by power. . . . They have the god syndrome."

In a recent paper on the psychological impact of polygamy, Larry Beall, clinical director at the Trauma Awareness & Treatment Center in Utah, concluded that women and children are "profoundly impacted" by a subculture of paternalism, secrecy, abuse and isolation. Rates of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem are high among survivors of "polygamous cults," Beall wrote.

Centennial Park residents say the exact opposite is true in their community.

They claim to have well- adjusted families with higher education rates than the rest of the nation. They say homes with more wives and kids wind up with more love and greater responsibility. And they insist that anti-bigamy laws are promulgated by public fear based on ignorance.

Attorneys representing FLDS members also say that anti-polygamy prejudice has been used to twist the law.

Tucson lawyer Michael Piccarreta, who represents FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, says the government created a convoluted legal theory in prosecuting his client, who was convicted in Utah. The state charged him with "rape as an accomplice" for performing marriages between children and polygamous men.

"There's a huge state bias against this sect," Piccarreta says. "It appears they will use whatever method they can to stamp it out."

Utah's dilemma

In 2004, Goddard persuaded Arizona lawmakers to pass a statute criminalizing the conduct of a married adult who takes on a minor as a plural spouse via a religious union. He did not press for a law closing the Arizona loophole that insulates adult polygamists.

But Utah has just such a statute, broadly defining bigamy to include cohabitation with purported, multiple spouses. So polygamy is a felony. But Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has generally ruled out prosecutions because he has an estimated 40,000 state residents living in plural-marriage families.

"The problem is, how do we put every single polygamist in jail, and then what do we do with tens of thousands of kids?" Shurtleff told CNN. "I don't have the resources to get involved in that. I want to focus on the most serious crimes being committed in the name of religion."

Earlier this month, Goddard and Shurtleff took part in a public meeting on plural marriages in St. George, Utah, the site of Warren Jeffs' trial. More than two dozen polygamists, most of them from Centennial Park, politely exchanged views with prosecutors.

But Dockstader says he remains worried and has considered resorting to an old Mormon tradition: migration to a refuge safe from anti-polygamy laws. "The thought occurs," he says. "But where is safe?"

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