In the face of the controversial topic of polygamy, an advocacy group is trying to build bridges between two worlds that inherently distrust each other.
In the process, the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices has evolved into a political and educational force that is reaching out to people both inside and outside polygamous communities.
"When we first started speaking publicly, it was because nobody was speaking from our perspective," said Mary Batchelor, the group's director. "There's a lot of diversity. There are people who are happy and functional and doing well, blended in society. There are some who are struggling. There are some having difficulty because they are on the receiving end of bias. There are some in abusive situations who don't feel like they can turn to anti-polygamists. We came to the conclusion there was a need for Principle Voices."The group most recently engaged in a public feud with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the term "fundamentalist Mormon." The LDS Church has repeatedly objected to the use of the term. Principle Voices insists that they are, as they say, "fundamentalist Mormons," with an unofficial census counting 37,000 people in Utah and surrounding states who consider themselves as such.
The group was founded in 2000 after the publication of the book "Voices in Harmony," a collection of essays by women who live in polygamy. The book attempted to counter a steady drumbeat that was anti-polygamy by offering the thoughts of those who are happy in the lifestyle.
"One thing led to another. We thought maybe by organizing, we'd have a little more credibility," said Anne Wilde. "We could also provide an avenue for those in our culture to speak up."
So Wilde, Batchelor, Marianne Watson and Linda Kelsch sought to bring all of the area's polygamous communities together. Many of the sect leaders were skeptical and fearful of what they were trying to accomplish, afraid that exposure leads to prosecution.
"They expected our heads to be lopped off," said Kelsch.
Through persistence, the women were able to persuade 24 leaders and representatives to meet.
"That was a thrill to see people who haven't seen each other for years sit around in my living room," Wilde said. "It seemed like up to that time, the groups stayed to themselves. They realized that we can do this, we can work together, we can make a difference."
Since then, meetings of Principle Voices have become so packed that their coalition had to be limited to a few representatives from each group.
"I'm seeing a great evolvement in my own community," said Kelsch. "My hope is it will continue to grow."
Principle Voices has combatted negative stereotypes by showcasing the normalcy and diversity of polygamy. The group has fielded media requests from all over the world to talk to plural families. Some are willing, even going on "Oprah" to talk about their families. Still, many are not.
"Because of the fact that we are speaking up, it helps them be even more protected because they don't have to and yet the message gets out," Wilde said.
Members briefly launched a magazine, and Batchelor still maintains a popular e-mail list of news items on all things polygamy.
Over the years, Principle Voices has reached out to government agencies and social services workers. They have given presentations to domestic violence hotline operators, prosecutors, child welfare workers and others. Kelsch made an impassioned plea to the Utah State Legislature against an anti-polygamy bill. She later ran for public office but was defeated.
Principle Voices has given the communities some political muscle, although Kelsch said there is still some hesitation for many polygamists to register to vote.
Paul Murphy, who coordinates the Utah Attorney General's Safety Net Committee (a coalition of government agencies, social service workers, activists and polygamists) calls Principle Voices an important liaison in maintaining a dialogue with polygamous communities.
"A lot of the problems have been created by isolation and a lack of dialogue and information going back and forth," he said. "The polygamists weren't talking to government; government wasn't talking to polygamists. We wouldn't have been able to solve a lot of problems and help a lot of victims had it not been for that open communication."
Anti-polygamy activists have accused Principle Voices in the past of sugar-coating a lifestyle they say lends itself to abuse. Tapestry Against Polygamy, the state's leading anti-polygamy group, declined to comment for this story. Tapestry's co-founder, Vicky Prunty, is Batchelor's ex-sister-wife."There are adults who have chosen this freely among consenting adults," Wilde said. "It doesn't work for everybody. That's why you get the negative voices of those who had a bad experience. They have every right to tell their story as well. But our story wasn't being heard for years and years."
Principle Voices has also tried to educate its own. The group has held seminars and trainings on the law, child abuse and domestic violence, childhood vaccinations, health care and other topics. Child welfare workers, domestic violence counselors and others have been invited to speak to them.
"Principle Voices has appeared to be more progressive in terms of opening up the communication pathways," said Bonnie Peters with the Family Support Center. "We've always gotten calls to provide clinical services for polygamous communities, but not all of the polygamous communities knew of our services. More people have called us not only wanting services, but asking questions. That is wonderful."
Their seminars have been well received.
"If we don't speak up, then people are going to continue to believe the lies and stereotypes," said Rebekah Foster, a plural wife who said she is an independent fundamentalist. "They (Principle Voices) are responsible for pulling down those walls and those lies and fears."
The group has publicly condemned abuse within plural communities.
"We knew abuse existed," Kelsch said. "It exists in every community, and we didn't feel it served our purpose to deny any of that. But to be open and up front, it helped the communities stop hiding because of their fear of polygamy being blamed."
Principle Voices has pushed polygamous groups to raise their marriage age to 18, saying that by doing so they will be complying with the law and not abandoning their religious doctrine. Most recently, a coalition under the group's umbrella said it is working to draft a formal statement from polygamous churches saying they do not condone underage marriages.
There is still one law that won't be followed.
"Polygamy becomes a gray area," said Batchelor. "It's against the law, but it's one area they feel they have to break the law."The Utah Attorney General's Office has said it won't prosecute bigamy per se, but instead focuses its resources on going after child abuse, sex crimes, domestic violence, and welfare fraud within polygamous communities. Bigamy is used in addition to those charges.
The one group that still does not participate in Principle Voices is the Fundamentalist LDS Church, but Wilde and Batchelor have hope.
"We are willing to open that door," said Batchelor. "They can educate us, and hopefully there's things we can do for them."
FLDS member and spokesman Willie Jessop recently met with Batchelor and other Principle Voices members in West Jordan. A dialogue is beginning, she said. They also toured the YFZ Ranch and met with FLDS members in Eldorado, Texas.
The raid brought many polygamous groups together. In April, Principle Voices staged a rally in Salt Lake City and sent representatives to Texas with care packages for the women and children.
"I'm excited to see some of the steps they've taken," Batchelor said of the FLDS. "I guess they would also learn they need to do things differently. I'm excited they're speaking publicly and defending themselves and giving their side of the story so people can have perspective."
For Principle Voices, their ultimate goal is decriminalization of polygamy. It's not something government is rushing to help with.
"That's not an area where we can come to an agreement, but there are areas where we can work together and we can agree," Murphy said.
Wilde hopes it will happen one day."I don't know if that will happen in my lifetime or not," she said. "But I'd like to see the community at large have more understanding and respect for our culture."
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