Saturday, July 16, 2011

Polygamy pros and cons: Getting to the heart of the conflict

In the late 1980s, I wrote Lion’s Pride, an historical mystery about Mormons who practiced polygamy years after Latter-Day Saints banned it. Though my writing was praised, the premise was considered fantastic.

When Warren Jeffs’ iron rule in Colorado City, AZ, and Hildale, UT, hit the headlines, I published the book myself. Now readers know what I understood as a curious nine-year-old reading about federal arrests in the high-desert haven of Short Creek.

Polygamy is a complicated arrangement that’s been practiced throughout history. Most people believe it’s a religious practice, but it was usually done for pragmatic reasons. In sparsely populated areas with more females than males, men married multiple women to produce many children. Soon small groups generated large tribes and, eventually, great nations. While polygamy was practiced for that reason in biblical times, it was merely tolerated among Jews, not required by religious law.

Requiring polygamy for religious reasons began with Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion. Since his teachings attracted more female than male converts, it was a practical arrangement after Smith’s death and the Mormons’ removal to Utah under Brigham Young’s leadership.

Tens of thousands of their descendants still practice religious polygamy. Sadly, laws outlawing their lifestyle provide cover while men like Warren Jeffs take advantage of their followers. Among known abuses are:
  • Girls are forced to marry older men, while boys are expelled so leaders can have girls for themselves.
  • Mothers, considered single by law, collect state benefits and give them to the leaders.
  • Members must give their income to the leaders.
  • The church owns all property, so anyone can be evicted without notice.
  • Anyone who questions the leaders can lose homes, jobs, and families.

Crimes committed by Jeffs and his followers dominated headlines for a decade, but recently, Kody Brown and his wives, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn, show a different side of polygamy in their TLC reality series, “Sister Wives.” Among the rules they follow are:
  • Only consenting adults can enter a polygamous relationship.
  • Men need approval from current wives before they take new wives.
  • Girls and boys are encouraged to get an education.
  • Children choose whether they want to be polygamists as adults.

The Browns are open about both the problems and benefits of their lifestyle. They agree polygamy isn’t for everyone. One situation demonstrates they don’t take unfair advantage of government benefits. When he started working for his employer, Kody listed one wife and her children on his medical insurance plan. Then a daughter by another wife needed an appendectomy, but she wasn’t covered.

Instead of claiming the girl’s mother was a single mother, they set up a payment plan. Then Kody bared his soul to his employer and arranged for his family to be covered. The fact that they’re still paying for that surgery proves the Browns are nothing like members of Jeffs’ clan, who call their illegal abuse of the welfare system “bleeding the beast.”

The Browns are doing the show to lift the veil and remove the fear that overwhelms polygamists who are otherwise exemplary citizens. As a result of their public declarations, authorities began looking for a reason to interfere with their peaceful family life.

Knowing Kody could be arrested, the Browns moved to Las Vegas. Now Jonathan Turley, George Washington University Law School professor, has filed suit on their behalf against the State of Utah. Since Kody only legally married Meri and the others are spiritual, not legal, wives, they’re breaking no other law besides polygamy.

Now the haters are coming out of the woodwork. These activists rightly exposed abuses of the Jeffs cult, but they mistakenly paint the Browns with the same tarred brush. They claim that since some polygamists commit crimes, all polygamists must be criminals. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The fact that some priests abuse children doesn’t make all priests guilty. On the other hand, it’s legal for a man to marry one woman and have a secret affair with another (adultery), but it’s still a crime for a man to marry one woman and support another with the full knowledge and approval from the first (polygamy). Where is the logic?

It would be wiser to repeal statutes against polygamy and remove the veil that protects abusers like Warren Jeffs. Then the law could go after real criminals and leave people like Kody Brown and his clan to enjoy their rich family life together in peace.

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