Following a pair of declarations by two of Utah's largest polygamous churches, other sects are being encouraged to issue public statements saying they will not condone so-called child-bride marriages.
During a recent meeting of the Safety Net Committee, a coalition of government agencies, social service workers and polygamists, the Utah Attorney General's Office asked if other groups would be willing to make public statements like the Fundamentalist LDS Church and the Apostolic United Brethren.
"I think it's important to have people publicly state that they're not going to marry underage girls," Paul Murphy, the committee's coordinator, said Wednesday. "I think it's also important that people will be held accountable for their words."
The pro-polygamy group Principle Voices said it is working to bring other polygamous communities together to make such a statement.
"It would be nice to have a declaratory statement out there," Mary Batchelor, the group's director, told the Deseret News.
The Bluffdale-based Apostolic United Brethren issued a statement on May 27, saying it does not encourage or permit "child bride" marriages or arranged marriages, avoids using welfare and condemns any form of abuse. Earlier this month, the FLDS Church issued a statement clarifying its policy on marriage.
"In the future, the church commits that it will not preside over the marriage of any woman under the age of legal consent in the jurisdiction in which the marriage takes place. The church will counsel families that they neither request nor consent to any underage marriages," the statement said. "This policy will apply church-wide."
The declarations came in the aftermath of the raid on the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, where child welfare authorities had alleged a pattern of sex abuse involving young girls groomed to become child brides and boys growing up to be sexual perpetrators. The case imploded when two Texas courts ruled that the state acted improperly in removing all 440 children from the ranch. Child welfare and criminal investigations continue.
Murphy called the public statements an important first step.
"Basically, most of the polygamists say, 'We believe in obeying all the laws except one.' I think most of the problems polygamists face would go away if that were true," he said.
The Utah Attorney General's Office has not prosecuted polygamists for bigamy alone but has used it in addition to any sex crimes charges filed in connection with underage marriages. Authorities have said it is a prosecutorial resource issue as well as a religious freedom issue.
Principle Voices has pushed the age issue with many polygamous sects, saying that raising their marriage age is not abandoning any religious doctrine. The group's Anne Wilde said they have had to do education within their own communities about the law.
"The age limit of 16 with parental consent only applies to a legal marriage. It does not apply to religious sealings," she said Wednesday.
Several other polygamous groups have already gone on the record saying they will not perform underage marriages. Members of the Davis County Cooperative Society told the Deseret News last year they were encouraging their members to wait until they are 18 to marry. Members of the Kingston family have been prosecuted in the past for underage marriages.Within the FLDS Church, Utah prosecuted ex-Hildale police officer Rodney Holm for taking a 16-year-old girl as his third wife. FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was convicted last year of rape as an accomplice, accused of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.