Attitudes about polygamy and the raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch have shifted, a new poll shows.
The Deseret News/KSL-TV poll now finds that half of Utahns disagree with the decision by Texas authorities to take all of the children from the polygamous sect's property near Eldorado.
"It shows what a little speaking out can do," said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who is acting as a spokesman for the FLDS people.
According to the poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, 33 percent strongly disagree with the decision to take the children and put them in state custody, and 17 percent somewhat disagree. On the other side, 22 percent strongly agree with Texas authorities, while 20 percent somewhat agree. Eight percent answered they did not know. The poll of 405 Utahns has a margin of error of 5 percent.
When a similar poll was conducted just days after the April 3 raid on the YFZ Ranch, a majority of Utahns felt authorities were justified in removing the children. Only 13 percent of those polled in April felt that authorities' actions were "probably not" justified, and another 6 percent said they were definitely not justified.
Acting on a call to a family crisis shelter, Texas authorities responded to the YFZ Ranch seeking a 16-year-old girl who claimed that she had been married to an older man, was pregnant and abused. Once there, authorities said they found other signs of abuse that prompted a judge to order the removal of hundreds of children.
Weeks later, the Texas Supreme Court ordered the children returned, saying that child welfare authorities acted improperly and there was no imminent threat. Many of Texas Child Protective Services' original claims of pregnant teenagers and abused children have not proved to be true. The original call is also being investigated as a hoax.
Parker said the shift in public opinion can be attributed to people becoming more aware of the facts of the case. It can also be attributed to the cloistered FLDS society finally speaking out.
"By breaking that silence and allowing people to see the inside and see the stereotypes that have been promoted for so long are not accurate, people were able to make a more informed decision," he said.
The poll also found that a majority seemed to agree with the approach that Utah and Arizona have taken toward dealing with crimes within polygamous societies. Asked which options they most agreed with, 51 percent said polygamists should only be prosecuted if some other crime is committed in connection with their lifestyle, such as underage marriages or abuse.
Another 39 percent said polygamists should be prosecuted for plural marriage alone, and 5 percent said polygamy should not be against the law if it is between consenting adults.
"I think your poll confirms most Utahns want to make sure children are protected from abuse, women are protected from domestic violence and taxpayers are protected from fraud," said Utah Attorney General's Office spokesman Paul Murphy.
Murphy also serves as coordinator of the Safety Net Committee, a coalition of government agencies, social service workers, activists and polygamists. The committee's goal is to provide services to abuse victims as well as educate people in closed polygamous societies.
The attorneyeneralhas not prosecuted bigamy alone, but has used it when pursuing criminal charges against polygamists for underage marriages or abuse. Murphy said the state must use limited resources effectively and go after the most egregious crimes.
"You go after the worst first," he said.
Linda Kelsch, a founder of the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices, said the attorney general's approach toward polygamy prosecutions still places fundamentalists on a different level than other citizens.
"It's the best they can do now without changing the laws," she said. "My wonderment is if Mark (Shurtleff) has the ability to create laws like the child bigamy laws to enhance prosecution, why wouldn't he also have the ability to introduce decriminalization?"
Decriminalization, she insists, would help ferret out abuse and neglect by showing that polygamists have nothing to hide and won't be prosecuted for their lifestyle alone.
Some members of Utah's polygamist communities still fear prosecution, although one polygamous man told the Deseret News he is fine with the attorney general's approach to bigamy prosecutions.
"Technically they're breaking the law, OK? But realitywise, nobody's being hurt by that," he said. "If consenting adults choose to participate in that relationship, it should be up to them."
As society changes, he expects more people to grow tolerant of polygamous relationships.
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