ST. GEORGE, Utah – Utah and Arizona are working to create an environment of trust and respect between polygamist groups and government agencies and authorities, according to the attorneys general from the two states.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard led a two-hour town hall meeting here Tuesday night, allowing for comment and criticism about the controversial practice. About 200 attended the meeting which was the third in St. George.
Plural marriage is illegal in both states, although an estimated 30,000 people continue its practice across the West. Polygamy is a remnant from the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members settled the region and believed the practice brought exaltation in heaven. The church abandoned polygamy in 1890 as a condition of statehood.
Shurtleff said he rejects the "scorched-earth policy" of arresting all fundamentalists that was used in the past. But he also can't ignore it and said he's tried to use a policy of "established justice" to prosecute serious crimes. That's resulted in several prosecutions and an expansion of services to victims.
"Have we done enough? No. Have we made a difference? Absolutely," Shurtleff said.
Goddard said his state erred in 1953 when it raided the border community of Colorado City, Ariz., arresting dozens of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
"We are profoundly sorry that approach was taken ... setting up a situation for tyranny to thrive," he said.
Despite those efforts to improve relations, some said the public attitudes toward polygamists have not improved and that prejudice and misunderstanding persist.
It's "worse today that it was three years ago," said LeAnne Timpson, a member of the Centennial Park Action Committee.
Some attribute the problem to the current prosecution of Warren Jeffs, the leader of the FLDS church who is in jail in Washington County, Utah, awaiting a trial on charges of rape as an accomplice that were filed in the case of a 2001 arranged religious marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
Natalie Hammon, a basketball coach for a school in Centennial Park, Ariz., where some polygamist families live, said her team was taunted with shouts "hang the prophet" and attacked after a recent game, even though many of the students aren't from polygamist homes.
But prejudice can cut both ways, St. George resident Jane Hawley said.
"In the store, I reach out to smile at a baby from someone in the (polygamy) community and had dirty looks or they gathered their children away," Hawley said. "I'd like to see that change, see mutual trust and respect for each other."