Rare Utah case will be the first since the 1950s

SALT LAKE CITY - A man who lives with his five wives and 29 children in the remote Utah desert goes on trial Monday in the state's first polygamy prosecution in decades.

Tom Green, who says his lifestyle is a God-given choice and has vigorously defended it on TV talks shows, faces charges of bigamy and criminal nonsupport. He could get 25 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

He believes the government has singled him out because he's been so outspoken.

"You stick your head out of the hole, the government will shoot it off," said Green, 52. "The state's driving this thing back underground where they want it to stay."

Green himself has been anything but underground. He has appeared on several television shows to defend his lifestyle, including "Dateline NBC" and "The Jerry Springer Show," and held news conferences despite a judge's warning not to do so.

Juab County Prosecutor David Leavitt, Gov. Mike Leavitt's brother, has said he never would have known about Green if he hadn't appeared on television.

But Green, who insists he should be allowed to practice polygamy under the protection of religious freedom, said he shouldn't be required to keep his beliefs quiet.

"That's been the unwritten rule for 50 years in Utah," he said. "You'll pretend you don't exist and we'll pretend you don't exist."

Green also may be subject to a separate trial on child rape charges stemming from his relationship with one of his wives when she was 13, but no trial date has been set.

Only a handful of Utah polygamists has ever been charged with bigamy, and prosecutors believe the last trial was in the 1950s. The outcome of the trial will be watched with interest by an estimated 30,000 polygamists living in the West.

Critics of the practice say that the patriarchal societies in which polygamists live foster child abuse, incest and, because few practitioners can afford to support their enormous families, welfare fraud.

"It is a long journey that we have been on to get the attention of the state to get them to recognize some of the abuses that go on in these groups," said Rowenna Erickson, a former plural wife who now works with Tapestry Against Polygamy, an advocacy group for those who leave polygamy.

Polygamy arrived in Utah in the 1840s, when members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled in the state. Mormon leaders believed the practice was required by God because some Old Testament prophets took multiple wives.

But outside the church, the practice was condemned. In 1854 the Republican Party termed polygamy and slavery the "twin relics of barbarism," and in 1862 Congress outlawed plural marriage.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1879 upheld the anti-polygamy law. And with federal pressure mounting, the church in 1890 disavowed polygamy.

Six years later, as a condition of statehood, the practice was prohibited in the Utah Constitution.

But the long-secretive polygamous societies have endured, and members have begun to speak up. Some have agreed to interviews with reporters or held news conferences. Most notably, 100 polygamists from various groups attended hearings at the state Legislature in February, and persuaded lawmakers to soften the penalty for arranging polygamous marriages.

"They've probably had a stomach full of negative press and have set out to say something positive," said Dave Zolman, a former state lawmaker who lost his seat in part because of his support for polygamists' rights. "They have allowed themselves to be painted into the corner with their silence and their secrecy. And I told them, how do you ever expect to get your civil rights if you behave that way?"

Erickson acknowledged that Green's prosecution could force polygamists into hiding even further.

"There's always that possibility because they like to play the martyr role," she said. "I just think they're going to keep it more quiet, because that's part of polygamy and that's part of their addiction and their abuses."

But Mary Batchelor, who co-authored a book, "Voices in Harmony," in an attempt to draw more positive attention to polygamy, said driving the practice further underground could keep polygamists from seeking hospital treatment or sending their children to school.

"We felt that there has been a degree of acceptance in the last 50 years, where our people … have become more open and more willing to interact in society," she said. "They're not in hiding and I really feel that a return to the way it used to be is really harmful to polygamous families and particularly children."

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