CENTENNIAL PARK, Arizona (Reuters) - When Ephraim Hammon returns home from a day of working construction near Arizona’s border with Utah, he’s greeted by his wife SherylLynne. And then by his wife Leah.
Polygamy, once hidden in the shadows of Utah and Arizona, is breaking into the open as fundamentalist Mormons push to decriminalize it on religious grounds, while at the same time stamping out abuses such as forced marriages of underage brides.
The growing confidence of polygamists and their willingness to go public come at an awkward moment for mainstream Mormons, who are now in the spotlight as Republican Mitt Romney, a prominent Mormon, seeks the U.S. presidency.
The Salt Lake City, Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon church, introduced polygamy before the Civil War but banned it in 1890 when the federal government threatened to deny Utah statehood. Today, about 40,000 “fundamentalist Mormons” in Utah and nearby states live polygamy illegally.
Romney, whose great-grandfather had five wives and whose great-great-grandfather had a dozen, has dismissed the practice as “bizarre” -- a comment that infuriates Hammon, whose father and grand-father practiced plural marriage.
“If it was me, I wouldn’t apologize for my past. My ancestors did what they did. I can’t help that,” said Hammon, 36, who legally married SherylLynne, 32, in 1994 and was joined with Leah, 21, a decade later as his “celestial bride” in a religious ceremony that has no legal binding.
Leah bristles at the idea of women being forced into polygamy. “The women in this society are educated,” she said.
Her husband likened the struggle for acceptance with the civil rights movement. “It’s like the work Martin Luther King did in relation with African Americans,” he said, holding year-old Ava, one of his eight children, in the living room of his three-story home in Centennial Park, a dry, dusty Arizona town run by polygamists near the Utah border.
Excommunicated by the church, they see themselves as true believers in Mormonism as practiced by founder Joseph Smith.
Historians say Smith took at least two dozen wives, some of them before 1843, the year he announced a revelation from God saying polygamy was a crucial key to entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
“I don’t think the revelation that Joseph Smith received came from Christ,” said John Llewellyn, a retired Salt Lake County policeman who once practiced polygamy but now campaigns against it. “I think it came from his Y (male) chromosome.”
Llewellyn, an author of several books on polygamy, said the mainstream church could do more to stop it. Its “Woodruff Manifesto”, which banned polygamy, never revoked Smith’s revelation on plural marriage, which remains in section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a Mormon book of scriptures.
“We believe in this continuing flow of revelation, and it’s (God‘s) right to authorize and de-authorize -- to turn it on or turn it off,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, a leadership body of the mainstream Mormon church.
To revive polygamy, he added, the church’s 96-year-old president, regarded as a living prophet, must receive a revelation from God sanctioning it.
“That’s where we think that those who have left the church to pursue a polygamous lifestyle have gone terribly wrong. They assume their right to choose that and to authorize it when there is only a divine sanction possible to authorize that.”
Polygamist advocate Anne Wilde said the church has the right to its beliefs, just as polygamists should be allowed their interpretation of Mormonism without persecution.
“As consenting adults, which is the key, we ought to have that choice to live that lifestyle. We live it because of strong religious convictions,” said Wilde, 71.
The attorneys general of Utah and Arizona said in separate interviews they had no intention of prosecuting polygamists unless they commit other crimes such as taking underage brides -- a practice authorities said was rampant in a Utah-Arizona border community run by Warren Jeffs before his arrest in August.
“We are not going to go out there and persecute people for their beliefs,” said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.
Adds Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff: “We determined six or seven years ago that there was no way we could prosecute 10,000 polygamists and put the kids into foster care. There’s no way that we have the money or the resources to do that.”
The last big prosecution, in 1953, backfired. Arizona’s National Guard raided a polygamist colony on the Utah/Arizona border, but images of kids split from mothers, with fathers jailed, provoked national sympathy for the polygamists.
“No matter how much persecution the people have endured because of their belief, history has borne out that it will survive,” said Ephraim Hammon’s mother, Marlyne, who was a four-month-old baby in the colony when it was raided.
A turning point for polygamists came in August 2003 when dozens made a public stand by showing up en masse at a “polygamy summit” in St. George, Utah, organized by the Utah and Arizona attorneys general. “Before then, we discussed all these things in private,” said Hammon.
Many are finding they have an unlikely ally in Hollywood, since the start of “Big Love,” HBO’s series about a fictional polygamous family.
But many polygamists still live discreetly in middle-class neighborhoods next to conventional families, fearing the stigma of the practice could threaten careers and cause their children to be taunted at school.
Although encouraged by the state’s reluctance to prosecute them, several expressed fears of the future and want some legal protection in case the public mood turns against them.