Legalizing Polygamy: Cultural Bias, Moral Obligation, and Social Tolerance

By Robyn Williams

Robyn Williams graduated spring 2017 with a B.S. in English creative writing and plans to continue writing and advocating for positive social change. Robyn enjoys traveling, hiking, and playing with her large, wonderful family, including her husband, four sisterwives, and their 25 children, of which she is the biological mother to five.



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I was brought up in an isolated polygamous community, carefully sequestered away from the rest of the world. Taught from infancy that there was only one path to God and that beyond my small community there was only wickedness, I believed that my salvation lay in following my leaders. I was not to question, and I saw no reason to: my parents took care of me and I had no experience that would cause me to question their worldview. I was taught that if I stayed obedient and free from sin and outside influences, I would have nothing to fear. Yet, fear ruled me—fear of hell, fear of “the world,” and fear of my father going to prison.

My mother had been married to my father religiously, but not legally, so my polygamist father’s name was not on my birth certificate. It was a secret I needed to keep. Secrecy was what protected him, my family, my community, and me. The “law” was against me because my very existence was outside that law. Most of my siblings and friends were in the same position, “fatherless” children living an illegal lifestyle. The law was our enemy, and it had been for generations.

As we have seen in American news outlets over the past few years, child abuse is being perpetrated in many fundamentalist Mormon communities. FLDS leaders have been the most public example—sexually assaulting girls as young as twelve years—but the Kingston group has also been accused of breaking child labor laws, and sexual abuse can be found in every fundamentalist community, just as it can be found in any mainstream LDS stake. The problem is, these cases of abuse most often go uninvestigated and unredressed because of the great secrecy and social isolation that Mormon polygamists feel they must maintain in order to avoid being prosecuted for their marriage practice. Since there are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 practicing polygamists living in Utah today,1 this is a substantial problem that needs addressing.

Despite the fact that much of the world considers polygamy normal, either as a religious or economic lifestyle, polygamy is far from being tolerated in the United States. In fact, it is illegal in every state and a felony in Utah. However, this is to everyone’s detriment. Though the majority of Americans feel that polygamy is immoral, legalizing it would give children raised in polygamous communities a greater measure of protection from abuse and a chance of redress if it occurs. It would also free government resources to focus on prosecuting crimes associated with polygamy, such as welfare fraud, instead of trying to eradicate polygamy itself. Meanwhile, those who live polygamous lifestyles could become a more constructive part of American society, no longer feeling forced to live in secrecy.


From the time polygamy was publicly introduced as a sacred practice by the leaders of the Mormon Church in 1852, the general American population has considered it evil. Stephen Eliot Smith’s account of the heated debates over the issue tells us that public opinion of the day considered it a Christian duty to wipe the practice out. The Republican election platform of 1856 paired polygamy with slavery, calling the institutions the “twin relics of barbarism.” Smith writes, “ . . . it is indisputable that opposition to the practice among non-Mormons in the United States was close to universal. Polygamy was contrary to common Christian understandings of Scripture and was assumed by many people to be motivated primarily by male sexual licentiousness and the desire to subjugate women.”2 Even today, polygamy is often portrayed as a depraved lifestyle, associated with adultery, infidelity, blasphemy, rape, fornication, incest, lying, and deceit.

However, the constitutionality of banning polygamy was contested in Reynolds vs. United States (1879), where it was argued that federal antipolygamy laws violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court ruled that polygamist George Reynolds had the right to believe what he wanted but not the right to practice those beliefs—as they were deemed a public threat.3 This decision was an attempt to address the political balance between holding beliefs and exercising them. For example, would it be constitutional to legislate against religiously motivated human sacrifice? The needs of the community need to be balanced with the freedoms of the individual.

However, that balance is not so easily struck, as Patrick Q. Mason found out. While teaching at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, he presented his students with only the facts of the Reynolds case and the wording of the First Amendment, and then set them to deliberating. His students, who came mainly from Egypt and Arabic countries, unanimously sided with George Reynolds and were dismayed when they learned the court’s decision. They felt that polygamy was an acceptable lifestyle and should therefore be protected as a religious freedom. “None of my students expressed a particular desire to practice polygamy personally,” Mason writes, “but their religious and cultural backgrounds dictated an entirely different approach to the subject than I found among my predominantly Catholic, Protestant, and secular students in the United States.” Indeed, when Mason taught at Notre Dame, a similar exercise produced opposite results, the mainly American students siding with the Supreme Court and ruling against Reynolds. Mason recalls, “the discussion of polygamy elicited a relatively narrow range of reactions, from tittering (mostly from the males) to disgust (mostly from the females).”4

This antipathy is evident in American media as well. A 2005 article in The Journal of American Culture documents how polygamous guests appearing on a national television show were treated. “[T]he active involvement of the audience in yelling, booing, and clapping, was clearly designed to display the guests as oddities, a contemporary version of the circus freak show. Strong cultural biases against polygamy enable these media events to reinforce a presumed normalcy of monogamy by encouraging overt displays of hostility toward deviants.”5


As I have already pointed out, the illegality of and antipathy toward polygamy in America has driven polygamists deep underground, isolating them and inspiring deep suspicion. Most Mormon fundamentalists are fearful of any kind of government involvement in their lives. Those who have been the victim of a crime perpetrated in their community aren’t willing to seek help because they don’t believe that they will be treated impartially. Consequently, many crimes against women and children are concealed by the victims themselves. Carolyn Jessop, a polygamous wife who in 2003 escaped with her eight children from the FLDS community of Colorado City, Arizona, remembers when her 12-year-old son was pulled out of school and forced to work full time.

I did not know a safe place I could go to report child labor abuse…I feared if I went outside of the community to Child Protective Services I would be held accountable because I was his mother. I knew, as does every woman in the FLDS, that polygamy is an illegal lifestyle. We fear going to any service agencies outside our community because of the risk that we would get into trouble instead of being helped. We are all multi-generational Americans, but we have the same fears as any illegal immigrant . . . I did not believe I had the same constitutional rights as other Americans.6

Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, executive director of the Trauma Treatment Center and co-director of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis points out that “Secrecy is the acknowledged cornerstone of sexual abuse.” Many victims remain silent because “It is more hopeful for them to preserve a fantasy that if they tell, someone will protect them than it is to reveal the abuse to another who ignores, blames, or reabuses them.”7 Since secrecy is also the motto of polygamist communities, it is no surprise that sexual crimes so often go unaddressed. Were polygamists allowed to live their religion openly, they would be more likely to assimilate into mainstream American society where the perpetrators would not be so protected and their perversions not so easily concealed.

Decriminalizing polygamy would also allow the government to use its resources more efficiently. In a 2008 congressional hearing, Brett L. Tolman, United States Attorney for the District of Utah, gave an overview of Utah’s efforts to prosecute polygamy, especially in pursuing Warren Jeffs, the leader of the FLDS who had been accused of (and later convicted of) sexual assaults on minors.

Such efforts have involved the full cooperation, coordination, and communication of multiple federal, State, and local agencies, including, but not limited to, the FBI in Utah, Nevada, and Dallas, Texas, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, the Utah Attorney General’s Office, the United States Attorney’s Offices in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and the Northern District of Texas, county authorities from Mohave County, Arizona and Washington County, Utah, and other federal agencies such as IRS Criminal Investigations and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives.8

The crimes committed by Jeffs are appalling, but one also shudders at the huge expenditures for this massive campaign. The 2008 raid on the FLDS’s Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas cost millions of dollars, which the state is trying to recoup by selling the FLDS ranch as property confiscated from a criminal enterprise. But it hasn’t found any buyers yet.

The reason for the raid was to look into suspected sexual abuse, but as Michelle Gibson from the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexual Studies at the University of Cincinnati gleaned from media coverage of the raid and the subsequent investigation, only 12 of the 400 children removed from the compound had actually been abused.9 Legal intervention needs to change its focus from the eradication of polygamy itself, which has been shown to be largely a cultural crusade, to the protection of the defenseless, which is an ethical responsibility.

Another crime connected with polygamy is welfare fraud. The BYU Journal of Public Law reviewed a welfare fraud case against polygamist Tom Green whose multiple wives were drawing welfare on the claim that they were single mothers. The review describes how Utah had dealt with a large number of cases where a woman was able to gain welfare benefits by claiming that she was a single mother simply by not marrying the man she was living with. This loophole was taken care of with the Common-law Marriage Statute, passed in February 1987. The law stipulates that a couple will be considered married if they are legally able to be married and if they have established themselves as husband and wife in society. However, as was found with Green, this law does not apply in polygamist cases. Green was already legally married, so his polygamous wives could not count as common-law spouses. Green also avoided bigamy charges since he had never legally married two of his wives at the same time. He was finally convicted when the prosecution argued a never-before-attempted combination of the two statutes.10

Similarly, many polygamist wives draw welfare under the claim that they are single mothers, even if their husband is providing for them. Legalizing polygamous marriages would facilitate more accurate determinations of whether a family truly qualifies for government welfare, thus reducing the burden on the state. Additionally, many polygamist women and children could claim benefits they do qualify for without being afraid to reveal their marriage situation.

Legalization would also add an extra layer of support for polygamist wives. Currently a polygamous husband is not required to provide any kind of family support for the wives he is not legally married to, which can leave a polygamist wife in dire straits if her husband abandons her. If polygamy were legalized, these wives would be able to stake a legal claim to their husband’s income.

However, there still remains the question, even if they are not abused, are children who live in a polygamist home being denied some basic psychological or emotional goods? Is simply growing up in a polygamous family a significant detriment to children’s development? Are they in need of rescuing?

Sami Hamdan and his colleagues from the Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Israel, an associate of the Ben-Gurion University, studied the influence of polygamous versus monogamous marriage on children in Israel and reported that “After allowing for the influence of socioeconomic factors, there were no differences between offspring of polygamous marriages and those of monogamous marriages for any of the psychological scales. When polygamy is the accepted practice in a particular social milieu, it does not have a deleterious psychological effect on adolescents.”11 The qualifier in this quotation is, “when polygamy is the accepted practice.” Over time, the legalization of polygamy may start to lend some sense of normalcy to the practice and thus alleviate the current negative social and psychological effects children living in polygamous communities suffer. Being isolated from the larger world, being frightened of outsiders, and living with the burden of secrecy takes a toll, as I well remember from my own childhood.

I hope that my family’s twenty-five children will not have to grow up as afraid of the world as I did. It’s a hope that many polygamist people share. “I grew up knowing that I would be a plural wife because I had to do what was expected,” said Diane—raised in polygamy and the second wife of four. “I still don’t feel I have many choices. I’ve never learned to do anything because it’s never been safe to get out there. I feel very much in a box” (Bronson). Had polygamy been legal, Diane wonders if she would have chosen to enter the practice at all. “I don’t know. What if my mom and grandma hadn’t had to grow up living in hiding? I honestly don’t know, but maybe not, if I had dared to step outside.” I completely understand. I have often wondered those same things.

Diane says she also has hopes that her children (whom she currently schools at home) can be accepted and have the freedom to choose the lifestyle that is best for them.12

Of course, decriminalization of polygamy won’t immediately change the American public’s opinion of the practice; acceptance will doubtless be a long time coming, if it happens at all. Some people may worry that legalizing polygamy would facilitate its spread, but legalization may actually reduce the number of polygamists. If those living polygamy are relieved of the threat of prosecution, they will be more likely to relax and allow their children to mingle with the outside world where they can be influenced by mainstream American values.

As things stand today, the tighter the law squeezes polygamists, the tighter they hold to their children and their beliefs—and the more polygamist leaders can use fear to control them. Legalizing polygamy and granting plural wives a marriage license will help to protect the vulnerable, reduce the welfare burden on the state, give wives a legal claim to their husband’s income, and create a more constructive relationship between mainstream American culture and polygamous groups.




  1. “Polygamy.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. Web. 25 July 2011.
  2. Stephen Eliot Smith, “Barbarians within the Gates: Congressional Debates on Mormon Polygamy, 1850–1879,” Journal of Church & State 51, no. 4 (2009): 587–616.
  3. Patrick Q. Mason, “What’s So Bad about Polygamy? Teaching American Religious History in the Muslim Middle East,” Journal of American History 96, no. 4 (2010): 1112–1118.
  4. Ibid, 1114.
  5. O. Kendall White and Daryl White, “Polygamy and Mormon Identity,” Journal of American Culture 28, no. 2 (2005): 165–177.
  6. United States Congress, Committee on the Judiciary, “Crimes Associated with Polygamy: The Need for a Coordinated State and Federal Response.” 110–2, Washington D.C., 24 July 2008.
  7. Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, “The History and Consequences of the Sexual-Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 5, no. 1 (2004): 11–30.
  8. “Crimes Associated with Polygamy,” 182.
  9. Michelle Gibson, “‘However Satisfied Man Might Be’: Sexual Abuse in Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints Communities,” Journal of American Culture 33 no. 4 (2010): 280–293.
  10. Ryan D. Tenny, “Tom Green, Common-law Marriage, and the Illegality of Punitive Polygamy,” BYU Journal of Public Law 28 no. 1 (2002): 14–29.
  11. Sami Hamdan, Judy Auerbach, and Alan Apter. “Polygamy and Mental Health of Adolescents.” European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 18, no. 12 (2009): 755–760.
  12. Bronson, Diane. Personal Interview. 29 July 2011.