Gov. Mike Leavitt does not condone polygamy, nor is he sympathetic to its practices, the state's chief executive said in a hastily called press conference Friday afternoon.
"I just want to assure that the position of the state is clear," the governor told a roomful of reporters gathered in his office at the Utah State Capitol.And he is not aligned in any way with groups who want the state to reverse its position on polygamy. "I do not support that."
Leavitt's office called the news gathering less than an hour after a pro-polygamy group thanked the governor and Carol Gnade, executive director for Utah's American Civil Liberties Union, for what it perceived as support to the polygamy cause.
The Women's Religious Liberties Union held its first meeting Thursday evening. Mary Potter, founder of the group, said Friday she wanted to thank Leavitt and Gnade for "stating polygamists have protection under the constitution."
The group declares its mission is not religious but political: It wants Utah to repeal the state law that bans polygamy forever.
Leavitt said Friday that's not likely to happen. "Polygamy is prohibited by the Utah Constitution. It is against the law and it should be."
In meetings this week with local, state and federal prosecutors, Leavitt said he learned why polygamy isn't prosecuted.
First, it's hard to prove because polygamous marriages are conducted in private, making them difficult to document in court. There are legal impediments that include at least one Supreme Court ruling that a child cannot be removed from a home because of polygamy.
And there are higher priorities, he said, such as murder, rape, gang violence and drug dealing.
"I'd like to make an important point," Leavitt told reporters. "I learned this week that the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom is not among the reasons prosecutors do not prosecute."
Leavitt has been beleaguered by criticism and discussion since last week when he speculated that polygamy may be protected under the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. The comments drew nationwide attention, and support groups for women trying to escape polygamy sharply criticized the governor.
"Although the recent furor over polygamy has been unpleas-ant, the recent discussion has a positive consequence if it focuses attention on a lifestyle where abuses too easily can be shrouded in silence and secrecy," Leavitt said.
On Friday, the governor addressed several other questions on the subject:
What sort of approach are you going to suggest in prosecuting abuses within the polygamist community?
"I would call on local prosecutors to recognize that this is an important area that needs to be prosecuted. If anyone is being abused, domestically or otherwise or if their human rights are being being violated or their civil rights, (prosecutors) need to act aggressively. Period."
How can you have a higher priority than children if these children are being raised in these conditions?
"I am not here to make legal interpretations, that's not my training, but as I talk to prosecutors, they tell me there are aspects of the law that make it difficult," he said.
"The bottom line with prosecutors is that if you pump resources into polygamy and for that matter cohabitation, that murderers walk."
Will you urge prosecutors to pursue polygamy (as a crime) itself?
"What I've suggested is that any abuse of human rights or civil rights needs to be aggressively prosecuted."
What about polygamy itself?
"I've talked to federal prosecutors. It's clear to me they don't intend to change their practices. As I have talked to state prosecutors . . . and local prosecutors, they have told me the same thing. That is their priority for the reasons I have already enumerated. I do not expect that will change."
If it's not being enforced, why not just change the law?
"There are a number of laws, prosecutors point out, that fall into this category. Adultery, fornication, sodomy, all fall into areas that in my judgment are clearly wrong.
"Those who would advocate changing the law simply because they go forward and we don't enforce them . . . I don't think that's the right solution either. There is a teaching ethic to the law. There is a community standard establishment of the law. I think that's an important reason to keep those in place."
Some discussion addressed the recent child abuse case involving John Daniel Kingston, a member of the Kingston polygamist clan, which includes at least two members who are lawyers. The Utah State Bar requires members to swear they will uphold Utah law.
What about the practice of appointing practicing polygamists to state positions in government and having lawyers practicing law who are known polygamists?
"I know the bar is going to undertake that discussion, and I'll leave that one to them. I suspect there are people that live lifestyles that I might not agree with that I've appointed to places and that have been appointed in other states. I have not seen that as the sole criteria for those appointments."
So polygamy is not a reason not to appoint a person?
"No, I'm not saying that. I'm not saying that. I recognize that there may have been one or two people who practice this. I have not made it a criteria for my appointment. I do not know whether they are or whether they aren't. If you ask them, they'll tell you they're not. And for the same reasons it's difficult to prosecute these cases, it's difficult for governors to know whether they are or they aren't either."
So is it a "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy?
"It's a policy that sometimes you just don't know."
Are you uncomfortable with the fact that your ancestors and many of our ancestors embraced this practice and now 150 years later you must say it's wrong?
"I am among thousands of other Utahns who have somewhere in their heritage multiple families. That has nothing to do with my life today. There is no place for it in modern society, and therefore all I can do is delineate what I think is right today."