Bound by Fear: Polygamy in Arizona

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Article XX of the Arizona Constitution explicitly forbids polygamy. It states: "Polygamous or plural marriages, or polygamous co-habitation, are forever prohibited within this State."

Likewise, the United States Supreme Court has held fast in its prohibition of polygamy since its landmark case on religious freedom in the 1879 decision of Reynolds v. United States.

The Supreme Court concluded that to excuse Reynolds' practice of polygamy on the basis of religion would be to "make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could only exist in name under such circumstance."

While the Arizona Legislature has never enacted a criminal statute that provides for penalties for practicing polygamy, it does have a bigamy statute. Bigamy is defined as having two civil marriages that appear to be legal. The Colorado City polygamists typically only have a civil marriage for the first wife. The subsequent marriages are "spiritual" unions.

Utah, however, defines bigamy to include cohabitation while either person is legally married to somebody else. The broader definition has helped Utah successfully prosecute polygamy.

In May 2001, a Utah jury convicted polygamist Tom Green on four counts of bigamy and one count of criminal nonsupport. Green was sentenced to up to five years in prison. Last year, Green who is not associated with the FLDS in Colorado City was found guilty of child rape and sentenced from five years to life in prison.

Utah stepped up the pressure on polygamists last fall, when the state filed felony charges against Colorado City cop Rodney Holm, accusing him of bigamy and unlawful sex with a minor stemming from his spiritual marriage to Ruth Stubbs. The case is awaiting trial.

And last month, the Utah House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill that makes marrying a second wife who is under 18 a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Arizona, meanwhile, has taken no legislative steps to address problems in Colorado City, the largest openly polygamous enclave in the United States. Though it would be naive to think that criminalizing polygamy in Arizona would eradicate the practice among fundamentalists, enforcement of such a statute would have a profound effect on life in Colorado City.

If polygamous living were criminalized, the state would have more leverage to break the religion's grip on the town council, the school board and the police which are all controlled by polygamists.

State Senator Linda Binder (R-Lake Havasu) has been leading a lonely effort to enact tougher laws to address abuses in Colorado City. She says she has found no support from the Legislature to criminalize polygamy, much less tighten bigamy laws.

"The Legislature is not interested in the least," she says flatly.

Its reluctance may be partially rooted in fear.

"I don't think they want another Waco," she says.

Attorney General Goddard says his office is working with the Utah attorney general's office to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with the problem, continuing an effort begun under Napolitano.

Goddard, however, says he has been forced to lay off several key employees who were investigating the Colorado City case because of budget reductions imposed by the Legislature. Despite the layoffs, sources say the attorney general's investigation is continuing and an arrest appears imminent of a prominent polygamist who allegedly impregnated underage "spiritual wives."

Ultimately, Binder says, she would like to find ways to get tough with the fundamentalists by cutting off state funding to Colorado City government and police.

"Maybe we can dis-incorporate the town," she speculated.

That is exactly the tack the federal government took toward the Mormon Church 120 years ago. Historian Bistline says federal laws passed in the 1880s finally forced the mainstream church in Salt Lake City to abandon polygamy in 1890. The laws, which applied only to U.S. territories, stripped the church of property, banned polygamists from holding public office and threatened the same kind of forced dis-incorporation that Binder suggested would work today.

But beyond legalizing that kind of action in Arizona, Bistline says, legislators could "enact some laws to put [fundamentalist] leaders in prison."

Mayor Charm

Colorado City Mayor Daniel Barlow pulled out a tape recorder, pressed the record button and set the machine on the conference table inside the Colorado City Town Hall.

A distinguished-looking man with a salesman's smile, he's the perfect front man to glad-hand politicians across the state while promoting Colorado City's carefully crafted, family-values image.

Emerging from his late-model Cadillac dressed in a well-tailored gray suit, Barlow looks like Hollywood's version of the earnest, small-town mayor.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty