With Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, criminal investigations under way by authorities in Utah and Arizona, a national media feeding frenzy over all things polygamy and a TV show such as HBO's "Big Love," plural marriage is sitting under a very hot spotlight.
A recent Utah Supreme Court ruling that clears the way for prosecutors to go after polygamists under the state's bigamy statute has only served to turn up the heat.
"I have started to be a little concerned about that," said one polygamist man, who asked the Deseret Morning News not to identify him out of fear of criminal prosecution. He lives in the Salt Lake Valley with his five wives.
The Utah Supreme Court ruling couldn't come at a worse time for those who practice plural marriage. The state's high court already booted from the bench Hildale municipal court judge Walter Steed for having multiple wives. Before that, the Utah Supreme Court had upheld polygamist Tom Green's conviction of bigamy, criminal non-support and child rape, for taking a 13-year-old girl as one of his wives.
As a Hildale police officer, Rodney Holm had taken an oath to uphold the laws and the Utah Constitution, which unlike other state constitutions, contains a specific ban on polygamy. So when Holm was charged with bigamy and unlawful sex with a 16-year-old, it sent shockwaves.
Holm was convicted by a jury and sentenced to jail time and a $3,000 fine. He fought back, appealing his conviction, claiming Utah's use of the bigamy statute violated his constitutional rights. Specifically, Holm argued that he never purported to be legally married to Ruth Stubbs. He was however, legally married to her sister, Suzie. Prosecutors also took issue with Ruth's age 16.
The case hinged on the definition of "marry" in the statute. A person is found guilty of bigamy if they "purport to marry" or cohabit with an individual while married to another person. However, the Legislature has recently defined marriage under Amendment 3 to state: "Marriage consists only of the legal union between a man and a woman."
The Utah Attorney General's Office argued that for the purpose of prosecution, marriage under the bigamy statute could include other unions not state-sanctioned.
Holm countered that under the U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence vs. Texas which declared state sodomy laws unconstitutional the nation's highest court recognized the ability of adults to enter into relationships of their choosing without fear of government interference.
"We're talking about consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes," the polygamist man told the Deseret Morning News. He said that he married all of his wives when they were adults. "You've seen my family. Yeah, I have more than one wife, but it's the normal family dynamic."
In its ruling issued last week, the Utah Supreme Court found Holm ran afoul of the state's bigamy statute. He had participated in a wedding ceremony. His teen bride wore a white wedding dress, and the two exchanged vows.
Legally, the ruling opens a clear way for prosecutors to go after any adult who lives in multiple relationships likened to marriage. However, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has vowed to not make polygamy the focus but rather use bigamy as a tool to go after those who abuse women and children.
"We have not changed our stated position to use our limited resources to go after the more serious crimes, crimes against women and children," Shurtleff told the Deseret Morning News. The reality, Shurtleff said, is that imprisoning thousands of polygamists and taking away their children would prove too taxing for state resources.
Shurtleff said he was not surprised by the ruling, saying the decision simply upholds previous court rulings showing Utah's bigamy statute to be constitutional.
Polygamists seem to be taking Shurtleff at his word.
"Nothing's really changed," said the polygamist who spoke to the Deseret Morning News. "I actually think it was a plus getting a dissenting measure. That opens up the door for something else down the road that's positive, as far as decriminalization goes."
In her dissenting opinion, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham expressed concern that the majority opinion would allow the state to begin intruding into the personal lives of adults. Durham said the expanded definition of marriage could force people into a role they may not have intended. The chief justice also drew a distinction between a religious union and a state-recognized marriage.
Mary Batchelor with the pro-polygamist group Principle Voices applauded Durham.
"She's a hero. My daughter wants to become a supreme court justice now," Batchelor said, adding that the ruling could create fallout by driving polygamist families deeper underground.
"The court failed our children, the court failed our families because it gives permission to society to discriminate against us and against our children and families," she said.
The polygamist who spoke to the Deseret Morning News said the potential for unwarranted persecution is there, but he lives in a much more liberal time than in the 1950s, when polygamists were rounded up and put in jail.
"I live under the idea that I could go to prison, but I've lived that way for all my married life," he said. "It's a concern in the back of my mind. But if I'm a law-abiding citizen and I don't flaunt my life, I'll be OK."Comment on this story
Batchelor says she takes comfort in Shurtleff's promises but says he won't be attorney general forever. Utah's next attorney general may not be so tolerant. Shurtleff also cautioned that it's not up to him alone."There are 29 county attorneys who have independent authority to go after (polygamists)," he said. "The bottom line is, it is a crime. If some law enforcement officer wants to prosecute it then he can prosecute it."