Polygamy didn't work very well in my family more than 100 years ago when it was accepted practice in Utah. It doesn't work very well today; it's illegal for good reason. Polygamy all too often leads to a form of total domination of women by men and at its worst involves child abuse, forced marriage of young girls and mental and emotional abuse of their mothers.
For Gov. Mike Leavitt to even hint that polygamy is not a crime in Utah, that law-enforcement agencies have better things to do than prosecute people who are merely practicing religious freedom is unacceptable for the leader of this state.For Leavitt to publicly state as he did last week that abuses fostered by polygamy should be handled aggressively but that the practice of polygamy itself is somehow protected by the First Amendment sends the wrong kind of mixed signal to polygamists and to law-enforcement agencies.
Incredibly, he seems to be saying that the only polygamy-related incident worth pursuing would be one as blatant and public as the incident in which a young girl who was found severely beaten in Box Elder County has testified her father beat her for trying to leave what she says was a polygamist marriage to her much older uncle.
For those few cases of abuse that come to light there are many more that never do because of the indoctrination of polygamy and the hopeless feeling of those women caught up in the practice, according to a group of former polygamous wives calling for a tougher attitude from the governor.
The Utah Constitution specifically forbids the practice of polygamy. But Leavitt said Utah and other states have not prosecuted polygamists because it's difficult and "these people have religious freedoms" that have to be weighed against secular laws. That's nothing but sexist nonsense.
Religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment does not protect people whose goal is to restrict or eliminate the freedoms of others. Polygamist men have absolute power over the women they marry and their daughters. The women are taught that to disobey or, worse, leave the family means secular isolation and eternal damnation.
It's difficult for any woman to leave an abusive situation, but when such a tight-knit community surrounds her and piles on feelings of guilt for even contemplating leaving, it would become nearly impossible. Still, some, such as the girl in the most recent case, have tried and have succeeded. Members of the group of ex-polygamous wives tell stories of women imprisoned and exploited by polygamy.
What about their rights under the Constitution - both Utah's and that of the United States?
Polygamy was outlawed in Utah and forbidden by the dominant church because it was illegal according to laws of the land. None of that has changed in the past 100 years. But intricate societies of polygamists continue to thrive in Utah and other states, and the laws are not enforced.
Besides the possibility of hidden abuse of their members, these societies are taxing the welfare programs of this state, putting all taxpayers in a position of supporting illegal practices that put women in abusive situations. News organizations have reported documented cases of fraud among polygamist families whose female members claim single-parent status and thus qualify for a variety of state programs.
Polygamists are using the state's indifference to their illegal practices to have their cake and eat it, too. They claim to be living in righteous unions but also claim to be single unwed parents when it means they can get money from the state.
Religious freedom is a wonderful thing, but I don't believe fraud properly comes under its umbrella of rights any more than abuse does.
The governor may be proud of his polygamist heritage. Maybe it worked well in his family; it didn't in many others. It doesn't work now, and today it's also illegal and should be treated as a crime.