Magazine article Newsweek

Strange Days in Utah: Why Did a Mormon Sect Take Its Kids out of School?

Magazine article Newsweek

Strange Days in Utah: Why Did a Mormon Sect Take Its Kids out of School?

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Murr

Situated in the remote desert along the Utah-Arizona border, the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, are the longtime redoubt of a breakaway Mormon sect that still practices polygamy 110 years after it was banned by the mainstream Mormon Church. The sect, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is run by a self-proclaimed prophet and "Mouthpiece of God" named Rulon Jeffs, who is 90 years old and reported to have somewhere between 19 and 60 wives. (An attorney for Jeffs confirms he has plural wives.) To followers, Jeffs's words have the force of law, and they paid close attention last July when the prophet's son, Warren Jeffs, told "the Priesthood people" to separate themselves from "the apostates" around them. In September, the rest of the community found out what Jeffs meant--attendance at local schools suddenly dropped by 75 percent when the sect decided to educate nearly 1,000 children at home.

To church elders like Daniel Barlow, the mayor of Colorado City, the issue is simply that "the public schools won't let us teach about our heritage." But the mass withdrawal remains largely a mystery to outsiders. Some see it as a symptom of the rising tension between true believers and civil authorities on the question of polygamy itself. "If they send their kids to school, then peo- ple ask questions" about their lifestyle, says Carol Lear, a lawyer for the Utah Office of Education. Although it is illegal everywhere, polygamy is still practiced by half a dozen Mormon splinter groups in Utah and other Western states; between 20,000 and 50,000 people now live in polygamous families. Consecrated by sect leaders as "celestial marriages," these unions are not recognized by law, although authorities have long followed an informal policy that resembles "don't ask, don't tell. …

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