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SALT LAKE CITY - Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he believes the practice of so-called "child bride" marriages within polygamous societies has been halted.
"I'm quite confident that the practice of child-bride marriages has effectively stopped in this state," he said in an interview Tuesday with KSL NewsRadio.
Shurtleff said to date, his office has had no direct evidence that any underage marriages are being performed in the polygamous communities within the state.
"It doesn't mean it hasn't," he said. "We will still look."
In the interview with KSL NewsRadio, Shurtleff stopped short of saying the practice had been eradicated, but he said they have managed to get several polygamous churches to say they will not perform marriages of anyone under 18. That is in part due to a child bigamy law passed by the Utah State Legislature that makes such marriages a felony.
Indeed, the leaders of many of Utah's largest polygamous communities have gone on record saying they will no longer perform such marriages. Some denounced the practice outright.
"That has been a big step," said Anne Wilde of the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices. "That publicly, the leaders have said they are not going to perform any underage marriages or encourage them."
Wilde said the majority of polygamists in Utah do not perform underage marriages.
"The other ones, I think they just realized that if they are going to hold up their head in society that they needed to conform," she told KSL NewsRadio.
Under Utah law, a person can get married at 16 with parental consent--unless they are involved in a polygamous union. While polygamy itself remains illegal, the Utah Attorney General's Office has taken the approach to not prosecute consenting adults in the relationships. Shurtleff has said it is a resources issue: there isn't enough space in prisons to hold adults and the foster care system would be overburdened with thousands of children.
There also remains a religious freedom argument for polygamy that could be challenged in the courts. Utah has prosecuted polygamists in the past, but only used bigamy as an enhancement to other charges including unlawful sex with a minor.
The Utah Attorney General's Office has also tried outreach to polygamous groups through a "Safety Net"--a group that includes representatives from polygamous communities to reach victims of abuse and neglect within the closed societies. It has had success, organizers have said.
According to a regular census conducted by Principle Voices, there are an estimated 37,000 people who consider themselves "fundamentalist Mormons" in Utah and surrounding states. Many belong to groups who splintered from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which no longer practices polygamy and excommunicates those who do.
Principle Voices is seeking to bring legal issues surrounding polygamy to the forefront in September when it hosts a conference specifically geared toward lawyers. "Family or Felony: Polygamy and the Law" will feature attorneys who have worked on high-profile cases involving plural marriage, including Julie Balovich and Amanda Chisholm of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, who successfully challenged the removal of hundreds of children from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
Utah Attorney General Shurtleff and his chief deputy will also participate, speaking about Utah's approach to polygamy and prosecuting it.
"Their interest has been helping educate polygamists on what the law is," Shurtleff said of his involvement. "What we are interested in is prosecuting those who have sex with children, force children into marriages and involved with incest or otherwise ripping off the welfare system. It's great to be able to talk to them directly and answer their questions."
Wilde said her group would ultimately like to see polygamy either decriminalized or legalized.
"The nuclear family is by far the minority now," she said. "It's mostly alternative families and this is just another alternative lifestyle."