Once, on a rural Western highway, my wife and I came upon a small settlement we'd never noticed before. Curious, we turned off and discovered an unusual place. Many of the houses were huge -- almost like dormitories. The women wore bonnets, long braids and pioneer-style dresses over homemade-looking pants; even their ankles were covered. We saw far more women than men, and kids were abundant.
Everyone stared at us as we drove by, and when we went into a grocery to buy snacks, the staring became more intense. Obviously, they considered us intruders. That was 30 years ago; we've never had that feeling anywhere else.
That community was Short Creek -- the local nickname for the neighboring towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., in the desert between Arizona's Grand Canyon and the mesas of southern Utah. Short Creek still retains the same peculiar character, because it's still defined by its religious practices. Nearly all the residents are members of a Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS. Their religion revolves around an illegal practice: polygamy.
Debra Weyermann's cover story this issue reports how, for decades, authorities in Utah and Arizona deliberately looked the other way, allowing the FLDS to do its thing in Short Creek. The tolerance stems from a perversion of the admirable "freedom of religion" principle in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Mormon Church's power -- especially in its headquarters state, Utah -- also plays a huge role. The church adopted polygamy during its formative period in the 1800s, and even though it has officially backed away from the practice, its sacred covenants still include the historical call for men to have "many wives."
Utah has tens of thousands of polygamists, probably more than any other state, some living independently, others organized into various fundamentalist sects. Weyermann describes the dark side of what many consider simply a "lifestyle choice." Extremist polygamists engage in serious crimes -- including sexual abuse of girls as young as 12 and welfare fraud (claiming that a man's multiple wives are single mothers in need of government assistance).
Those who defend polygamy say it doesn't inevitably cause serious crime, any more than Catholic churches necessarily create a habitat for pedophiles. But unlike polygamy, Catholic priesthood is not in and of itself illegal. Perhaps a better comparison is the 1930s tolerance of illegal alcohol, during Prohibition, which led to a rise in organized crime syndicates that engaged in violence and corruption.
Rooting out the dark side of polygamy will take more than a few high-profile arrests. The authorities in Utah and Arizona, and the leaders of the Mormon Church itself, must aggressively investigate and denounce the illegal activities at places like Short Creek. Without a consistent, coordinated effort from the highest levels of church and state, the abuse of innocents will continue.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.