Arizona law remains fuzzy on polygamy

The Arizona Republic/June 9, 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 he's 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, he says.

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

While Dockstader and others in this community of 2,000 harbor such fears, there are reasons why law enforcement agencies are 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.

Members 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.

He 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."

Attorneys representing FLDS members say 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."

Earlier this month, Goddard and Utah Attorney General Mark 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.

Dockstader says he remains worried and has considered resorting to an old Mormon tradition: migration to a refuge safe from the anti-polygamy laws.

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