The Associated Press, August 2, 1998
16-year-old allegedly whipped for rebelled against arranged marriage to her uncle--Utah Gov. in political minefield
By Mike Carter, Associated Press Writer
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Carrying out his sworn duty to uphold the Utah Constitution is becoming a public relations hot potato for Gov. Mike Leavitt.
The sticking point is Article III, which mandates religious tolerance but adds this caveat: ``Polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.''
The early Mormons' practice of plural marriage, renounced by the church in 1890, has persisted among religious splinter groups and hasn't been prosecuted in more than 45 years. Today, there are an estimated 30,000 polygamists in the West.
But an accusation of child abuse against a prominent member of a wealthy polygamist clan has brought that wink-and-a-nod tolerance into question and caught the Republican governor in the middle.
The issue is a political, religious and cultural mine field in a state where 70 percent of the governor's constituents are Mormon.
Leavitt, a descendant of Mormon polygamists, appeared to stumble when asked about the child abuse case at a July 23 news conference. Refusing to flatly condemn polygamy, he suggested that it may be protected as a religious freedom, despite a century of case law to the contrary.
``It's clear to me in this state and many others, they have chosen not to aggressively prosecute it,'' he said. ``I assume there is a legal reason for that. I think it goes well beyond tradition.''
``What needs to be cracked down on, if there is to be such a crackdown, is any abuses of peoples' civil and human rights,'' he said.
Leavitt's comments brought condemnation from a fledgling organization of women who have fled polygamy. Members of Tapestry of Polygamy say the practice of men having more than one wife is inherently abusive.
``As it is practiced, it degrades women,'' said Roweena Erickson, a former polygamist wife and a board member of the self-help group.
``Many women in these relationships struggle with isolation, emotional abuse and poverty,'' she said.
Tapestry's stand was countered last week by the newly formed Women's Religious Liberties Union, which called on Leavitt and the Utah Legislature to repeal the ban on plural marriage.
On Friday, the governor backpedaled from his religious freedom statement, although he stresses that he does not condone polygamy.
Polygamy within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began in secret among its leaders — founder Joseph Smith had 33 wives — but was openly practiced after the Mormons fled to the future site of Utah to escape persecution.
Congress passed tough anti-bigamy laws and the church, under threat of having its assets confiscated, abandoned the practice in 1890. Then Congress insisted the anti-polygamy clause be included in the Utah Constitution when statehood was granted in 1896.
Modern polygamists continue to observe Mormon doctrine and are convinced the church was wrong to abandon plural marriage. The church disagrees; polygamists are summarily excommunicated.
The felony child abuse case involves John Daniel Kingston, a prominent member of a polygamist clan that reportedly has as many as 1,000 members and business holdings worth up to $150 million.
Kingston, 43, is accused of whipping his 16-year-old daughter with a belt after she rebelled against an arranged marriage to his brother. Police say the girl, her uncle's 15th wife, told them all she wanted to do was finish high school. Kingston has pleaded innocent. [Emphasis added]
On Friday, the governor said that after speaking with prosecutors, he had concluded polygamy isn't pursued in court not because of religious freedom but because — as with fornication, sodomy and adultery — it is difficult to do so.
He cited three reasons: lack of proof, since most polygamous marriages take place in private and are not documented; case law preventing children from being removed from a polygamous home; and higher priorities for law enforcement.
There may be another reason. The last time the law was enforced, when state and federal agents raided a polygamist community in 1952, it became a public relations debacle. Photographs of crying children being dragged from parents' arms and husbands being jailed turned public opinion against the authorities.
The prosecutor in the abuse case against Kingston, Box Elder County Attorney Jon Bunderson, is pragmatic about enforcing the anti-polygamy clause.
``In my 23 or 24 years of doing this, I've never had anyone come in and seek a prosecution because consenting adults are living together.''
Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved.