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Acceptance Still Elusive for Committed Polygamists

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And this week 1,000 people showed up at a town meeting in St. George, Utah to discuss the touchy issue of polygamy. Many were polygamists themselves. The gathering prompted NPR's Howard Berkes to open his reporter's notebook and reflect on two decades of covering multiple marriages.

HOWARD BERKES: I've met some amazing polygamists, including two lawyers, a newspaper editor, a high school principal and a high-priced consultant - and that's just the women. They were articulate, confident and direct, just like the five polygamist wives who were panelists at this week's polygamy town meeting.

They were also afraid. Joyce Steed read an email from another plural wife.

Ms. JOYCE STEED (Polygamist): The hate is spilling out everywhere. Bloggers for the most part sound like an unreasoned mob. The antagonism when I am in public is palpable. It seems that the only thing that will satisfy some is blood, the extermination of the entire plural culture. I cling to my face and push down the fear.

BERKES: This is the atmosphere since that raid in Texas involving the FLDS polygamist group, which is based in twin towns on the Utah-Arizona border. Polygamists outside the FLDS faith fear that they'll be swept up in the backlash. They pleaded with reporters to tell some good stories about polygamy.

Phoenix TV reporter Mike Watkiss responded this way:

Mr. MIKE WATKISS (TV Reporter): As long as we continue to have the problems of the underage marriages, as long as we have boys abandoned in adolescence, and as long as some of these communities have their hands in taxpayers' pockets to sustain themselves, you're going to have ugly guys like me snarling in your face and I will never back down.

BERKES: That reminded me of the polygamist I thought I knew best. He was an avid NPR listener and he had five wives and more than two dozen kids. Look at these beautiful women, he once told me. Wouldn't you like to join this family? It turned out that his wives included sisters and stepdaughters and a woman he married when she was just 13. Tom Green went to jail.

Polygamists like to say there are good and bad among them like any group, but they choose that life, noted Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

Mr. MARK SHURTLEFF (Attorney General, Utah): You say you stand up and you're proud to be a polygamist, then if people look down their nose at you, well, you've made your choice.

(Soundbite of applause)

BERKES: I know this after years of monitoring and reporting: the polygamist choice is no closer to acceptance today. The best they can hope for is tolerance, and that also seems as fleeting as ever.

YDSTIE: NPR's Howard Berkes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Howard Berkes is a former correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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