SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH, March 2009
The American state of Utah is home to the Mormon church that more than hundred years ago banned the practice of Polygamy – where a man can take more than one wife. But a group of fundamentalist Mormons broke away and now some 40,000 in Utah live in polygamous families that under American law is a felony crime.Now, however, these families have begun a campaign to lobby for a change of law which they see as discriminatory and unfair. Humphrey Hawksley joined them in one of the first days of campaigning.
“All right everyone, listen up,” shouted Kody Brown, brushing his shoulder length hair clear of his face. He put both hands out in front of him, pointing towards twelve children aged between four and fourteen gathered around a square table in the middle of a huge kitchen. Six were on one end. One all alone in the middle and five with their mother stood at the other end.
“Those belonging to Janelle identify yourselves,” instructed Kody who’s 41. Six pairs of hands shot up with screams of ‘Yahoo.’
“And the child belonging to Meri,” said Kody. Thirteen-year-old Mariah raised her hand.
“Now Christine’s kids,” said Kody.
A show of five pairs of hands with a loud ‘Yahoo’ from everyone including Christine herself, one of Kody Brown’s three wives. The other two were out at work.
After the introductions, the kitchen returned to a kind of controlled mayhem. The boys played a board game. Three teenage girls chatted at the kitchen counter. The very young scampered around. Mariah got her guitar and her step-sister Madison who at thirteen was the same age played a song on the piano.
“So do you consider all of them to be your children?” I asked Christine.
“Well my children are my children,” she answered. “But, yeah, I love them all to bits and this is all my family. It’s awesome.”
Kody and Christine Brown live in a polygamous relationship. The house is divided into three adjoining apartments for each of the mothers and their children and as for where Kody lives …. “well,” as Christine put it, “He’s everywhere.”
I’d met the Browns a few hours earlier at the Utah State legislature where they had joined a campaign to legalise polygamy. Under US law it’s a felony and technically the adults could be jailed and the children taken into care. But there are simply too many. Up to forty thousand people in Utah live in polygamous families and it’s a way of life that they insist is based on religious belief.
The campaign is called Principle Voices and one of the organizers was Anne Wilde, now a widow after a 33-year marriage and in a her basement she keeps religious books that she used to publish with her husband.
“This was our best selling one,” she said, pulling out a slim paperback called Jesus was Married. “This is Martha and Mary – two of his wives,” explained Anne pointing to a picture at the front, “And then, of course, there was Mary Magdelene. You see, Jesus said follow me. He didn’t say follow me in all things except marriage.”
It was the evening before her big campaigning day and she was worried that not many would turn up fear of being identified for future prosecution. But she needn’t have. Walking across the snow in brilliant sunshine, dozens and dozens of people living in polygamous families arrived at the legislative building.
Nestled in a snow-capped valley, Salt Lake City is the historic capital of the Mormon church. But in 1890, the mainstream church outlawed polygamy. Those piling into a conference room to hear from the state’s politicians were from a breakaway group that had refused to opt for monogamy.
“I see myself as a free man in a free society,” said one father, who came with his two daughters, both aged 12.
On the podium was republican politician Ric Cantrel who had surprising message for people seen to be openly breaking the law. “Your patriotism is unquestionable,” he said, “and your faith inspiring. You have no hesitation to put God’s law above the law of the state with a propensity toward civil disobedience and I find that very American.”
Afterwards, Kody Brown and Anne Wilde mingled with Mr Cantrel and Mark Shurtleff, Utah’s larger-than-life Attorney General, his suit jacket bulging because of the sidearm he carried after getting death threats from a much more extreme group of polygamists.
“I’m not being soft on them,” he said. “But I don’t have the resources to throw them all in jail. I hope they now work through the process of changing the law if they disagree with it.”
It became clear that Utah’s polygamous communities would be safe from the police, as long as they stuck to other laws and, for example, didn’t indulge in child marriages or paedophilia.
But something was gnawing at me. Given that sexual infidelity so often leads to bitterness, even violence, how did the wives cope with that natural emotion of human jealousy?
“My relationship with my husband is only going to be great if his relationship with his other wives is great,” said Christine.
And what about the widowed Anne Wilde? “I had such a wonderful man as a husband,” she said. “I was so privileged. He was such a blessing that I was willing to share him with other good women.”