Polygamists at the Capitol proclaim: 'We're families, not felons!'
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Mary Batchelor

Principle Voices Director Mary Batchelor takes notes as her son, Tristan, finds space in a packed room as polygamists learn how to lobby their legislators at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff speaks to a packed room during Principle Voices' Legislative Education Day at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Leslie Wayman

Leslie Wayman, 28,of Bluffdale, attended a meeting where as polygamists learned how to lobby their legislators at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday.

Leslie Wayman raised her hand to ask a question.

"Will you please help us get the felony charge dropped?" the Bluffdale woman asked Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

"I'm not a legislator," he told her, giving a long-winded explanation about bigamy laws and how past efforts have gone nowhere in the Utah State Legislature.

More than a hundred members of Utah's polygamous communities came to the state Capitol on Thursday to learn how to become more politically active, pushing for the common goal of decriminalizing polygamy. Stepping out of the marginalization of society, husbands, wives, sister-wives and children crowded into the halls of power to defend their lifestyle and their families.

"I know in many ways this is quite a courageous stance," Anne Wilde of the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices told a crowded meeting room in the capitol.

For decades, polygamists have lived "out of sight, out of mind." Because bigamy is a felony in Utah, many communities isolated themselves from the outside world afraid of both religious persecution and criminal prosecution.

That isolation also allowed crimes against women and children to thrive, Shurtleff said, referring to his controversial polygamy prosecutions in recent years.

"My job is to enforce all laws," he told the crowd on Thursday. "But we have to do it within the resources available to us and due to the number of practicing polygamists in this state, there was no way the state of Utah can go out and prosecute and incarcerate all of the adults who are living in a polygamous relationship."

There are an estimated 37,000 people in Utah and surrounding states who consider themselves "fundamentalist Mormons." Shurtleff pledged to the crowd he had no plans to raid polygamous communities, like last year's raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.

"That being said, I lay what happened in Texas chiefly at the feet of the FLDS and their isolationism," he said.

Welcoming them to the state Capitol, Ric Cantrell, the chief deputy of the Utah State Senate, urged members of the crowd to get involved in the people's business.

"Government and all parts of society have to interface. We have to engage each other," he said. "We don't have the easy option of isolating."

As hesitant as she is, plural wife Christine said it's a huge step that must be taken.

"There's many of us that are just starting to speak out," she said Thursday. "Although we were raised in fear, we don't want the same for our children."

Her husband, who asked the Deseret News not to use his name, said some members of his community would not come to the Capitol because they were afraid of being "outed."

"A major portion of our culture, because they're hiding, they're not voting," he said. "They're really not exercising their rights because they want to stay under the radar."

The issue of non-traditional families are being debated heavily at the Legislature this year, with protests and counter-protests over gay rights. It's something some polygamists are sympathetic to.

"Would I live their lifestyle? No. Do I support them being able to have the right to live their lifestyle? Yes," said Christine. "I am more open minded than maybe some people in my community in saying they deserve to live that way because they want to live that way. The same thing with me."

E-MAIL: bwinslow@desnews.com
Originally published Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009