Magazine article Insight on the News

Two Many Wives

Magazine article Insight on the News

Two Many Wives

Article excerpt

Advocacy groups and legislators are cracking down on polygamy in Utah, but fundamentalist Mormons are fighting back, coming out of the closet to assert their religious beliefs.

Standing at his kitchen counter, wolfing down taco pizza during his lunch hour and cradling his infant daughter, Jeremy Thompson seems to have it all: The 28-year-old doctor has six healthy children, a thriving medical practice, a comfortable home and a minivan in the garage. But he has something most modern suburbanites don't have: two wives.

He may look like a typical husband, but Thompson is a practicing polygamist. Born and raised as a fundamentalist Mormon, he believes he must take more than one wife to reach the highest level of exaltation in heaven.

In Utah, polygamy is outlawed both by statute and the state constitution. For the last 30 years, authorities have followed a don't-ask, don't-tell policy toward polygamists, but recent charges of underage marriage and incest within some plural families have thrust what arguably is the most persecuted religious minority in American history back into the line of fire.

Alarmed by reports from an advocacy group called Tapestry Against Polygamy, the state attorney general hired a full-time investigator in October to probe the state's "closed societies." In May, the local debate is expected to draw national attention when a man with five wives becomes the first to face bigamy charges in more than 50 years.

"The Legislature has become more hostile in the last two or three years because of the perception of abuse," says former state Rep. David Zolman, a rare public official who has come out in defense of polygamy. Last month, Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt signed into law the "child-bride" bill, which stiffens penalties for parents or others who coerce girls younger than age 18 into marriage.

For generations, polygamists have reacted to state crackdowns by going underground, changing their names and swearing their children to secrecy. Those who failed to slink back far enough into the shadows sometimes found themselves arrested, their homes lost, their children taken from them.

But not this time. Faced with a rising tide of angry public opinion, polygamists such as Thompson are fighting back. Thompson's two wives -- his legal wife Melanie, age 27, and his "spiritual" wife Mary Jane, age 23 -- made Utah history when they appeared with a group of polygamists at the state capitol to testify against the legislation they claim will make it impossible to practice their faith.

Much to everyone's surprise, they won. Legislators removed controversial language from the child-bride bill, a victory that has emboldened some of those in the polygamous community to speak out on behalf of their way of life as never before. "People were totally shocked When these polygamous women came out," recalls Melanie Thompson. "We had a group of 11, and people said, `Wow, I can't believe you have this many.' We said, `Hey, this is nothing.'"

Estimates of how many people live in polygamy remain sketchy, but state authorities believe there are at least 30,000 in Utah and as many as 80,000 nationwide. Most of those are in the Rocky Mountain West, although polygamous clans also have been identified in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to Ron Barton, who led the investigation for the Utah Attorney General's Office. The largest polygamous community is in the twin border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, a remote spot whose 10,000 residents are nearly all members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the mayor and sheriff.

There is little census data on polygamists, but those living in such societies say their numbers are growing: Women with six or more children are commonplace in polygamous marriages. In one extreme case, Paul Kingston, the leader of the Kingston clan in Salt Lake City, is said to have 34 wives and more than 200 children. …

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