America's often-isolated believers in polygamy are coming into the public eye - confronted by a new crackdown even as some civil rights advocates contend that plural marriage should be legitimized.
The most sensational of the recent incidents has come in the small, tight-lipped community of Colorado City, Ariz. Recently, a power struggle has emerged within the polygamy-oriented sect that dominates the town. Some men have been excommunicated and their wives and children been "reassigned" to other men.
The turmoil there - apparently a bid by the church leader to consolidate his control of the community - comes as America's estimated 100,000 polygamists are in the spotlight on other fronts:
• Early this week a member of the Kingstons, a large clan in Utah that has practiced bigamy, was sentenced to a one-year prison term for taking as his wife a 15-year-old cousin who was also his aunt.
• Authorities in Arizona and Utah, with an eye on Colorado City, are stepping up a years-long investigation into the sect there - so-called fundamentalist Mormons - including concerns about forced marriages involving underage girls.
• In Salt Lake City, a civil rights attorney brought a lawsuit Jan. 12 challenging Utah's ban on polygamy. The case, which is built partly on the precedent set when the US Supreme Court overturned Texas's ban on sodomy, involves a married couple who were denied a license for plural marriage.
In all, the flurry of events could refocus attention on a practice that has quietly persisted for decades.
"We've all just turned a blind eye to what's going on," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says in an interview. "It's an embarrassment."
Mr. Shurtleff is at the forefront of a two-state investigation along the Arizona-Utah border involving Colorado City and Hildale, a nearby Utah town.
Both states have constitutions banning polygamy. But only Utah has enacted laws to criminalize it, although there have been few successful prosecutions.
"It was not on my radar screen," says Shurtleff. "It just hasn't been for 100 years of our history."
He is a Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which disavowed polygamy in 1890 amid federal pressure. But for the breakaway sect, which calls itself the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), taking plural wives is an ecclesiastical mandate.
Along with Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, Shurtleff has been building law enforcement efforts around Hildale and Colorado City, formerly known as Short Creek. In August, Hildale police officer Rodney Holm was convicted of bigamy and sexual misconduct with a minor whom he took as his third wife. Shurtleff then began moves to decertify the police department in Hildale. "The law has not been there to protect women and children," Mr. Shurtleff says. The town is "in the absolute control of a religious zealot."
Shurtleff has charged that young men are often driven from the communities to provide free reign to the elders to arrange plural marriages.
Sex crimes are just part of the law enforcement focus. Shurtleff's office is also investigating allegations of welfare fraud, tax evasion, and organized crime in which polygamist groups may launder money in offshore accounts.
Since the men's excommunications, three 16-year-old girls are known to have run away from the enclave. Two are in foster care in Phoenix, and the other is in state custody in Utah.
Some former plural wives have formed a group, Tapestry Against Polygamy, designed to help those trying to break free from bigamous marriages.
Vicky Prunty, a founder of the Tapestry group, was raised a mainstream Mormon but began gathering with polygamist groups. She says that after her husband brought a second wife into the home, she began to question the lifestyle. But it was only after a two successive polygamous marriages that Prunty sought aid and ultimately helped form Tapestry.
Rodney Parker, an attorney for the FLDS community, has called the probe of the sect a "complete waste of taxpayer money." Mr. Parker, who is not a member of the FLDS or the mainstream Mormons, believes the real issue is whether the institution of marriage will be extended to polygamists.
That's the issue at stake in the lawsuit filed earlier this month by a couple who was denied a plural-marriage license in Salt Lake County. The case will test the possible broader implications, beyond affirming privacy rights of homosexuals, of the US Supreme Court's ruling last June in Lawrence v. Texas.
Shurtleff filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Lawrence case, arguing that overturning the Texas sodomy law would open the door to challenges of other banned sexual behavior, including polygamy.
The state will "have to step up to prove that a polygamous relationship is detrimental to society," says Dani Eyer of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. "The model of the nuclear family as we know it in the immediate past is unique, and may not be necessarily be the best model. Maybe it's time to have this discussion."
But some experts say the Utah couple will have a hard time using the Texas case - which involved private behavior, not marriage - to apply to polygamy.
Andrea Moore Emmett, president of the Utah chapter of NOW, agrees with Eyre that the nuclear family has changed. "But to understand polygamous relationships, you have to understand cult dynamics. In every case of polygamy, human rights are being violated - education is denied to young girls, marriages are forced, incest and physical abuse are practiced."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.