Trial Brings Focus on Polygamy in America Warren Jeffs, the polygamous leader of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, faces two counts of rape as an accomplice in the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old girl. Guests discuss Jeffs' controversial sect, freedom of religion, polygamy and fundamentalism.
NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Trial Brings Focus on Polygamy in America

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In Utah today, jury selection continues in the trial of Warren Jeffs. He's the leader of a religious sect that practices polygamy, where one man can have several wives. But he's not being charge with that - at least not directly.

Jeffs faces two counts of rape, as an accomplice in the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old girl. So while polygamy itself is not on trial here, it's going to be very difficult to keep it out. The beliefs of Warren Jeffs' group and the practice of plural marriage are an essential element of this story.

And that's our main focus this hour. What do members of Jeffs' sect believe in? Are there other polygamous groups? How common is this practice? Is it illegal? And does it fall within the protections of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

TALK: You can also comment on our blog at

Later in the program, a spy story from the 40-yard line, and the ethics of stealing signs. But first, religion and polygamy in America.

We begin with Ken Driggs, a defense attorney from Atlanta, Georgia, and an expert on sects, such as the one led by Warren Jeffs. He joins us from Tallahassee today in the studios of member station WFSU.

Nice to have you on the program today.

KEN DRIGGS: It's very good to be with you.

CONAN: And let's start with Warren Jeffs. What exactly did he do that led to his arrest?

DRIGGS: Warren is the prophet and president and leader of a religious community that identifies itself as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Among their beliefs are that what they call celestial or plural marriage, I think to most people that would be called polygamy...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DRIGGS: an essential element for salvation, highest level of salvation in heaven. One of the things that differs them from other groups that have a similar belief is that in their community, they believe that the prophet speaking for God is able to determine who the best partners are for people. And the marriages are essentially arranged. The prophet determines who an individual woman or man should marry, and sometimes these are people who do not know each other very well, although it's a pretty small community and I think most people have an inkling of the others existence. And...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Go ahead. I'm sorry.

DRIGGS: ...many times those - the women in those marriages have been under the age of 18, which gets them into a legal area. And that's kind of at the center of the case he's been prosecuted for.

CONAN: And that's the center of this case, under the age of 18, which I guess would be statutory rape?

DRIGGS: Yes. Depending on different state laws and the age of the person involved, yes, it could be statutory rape. In this instance, it involves a bride who is about 10 years younger than her husband. She was a subsequent wife - she wasn't the initial wife - and she was under the age of 18 at the time of the marriage. She did not know and select the husband that she was married to.

CONAN: Yet, polygamy itself, you say, is not illegal?

DRIGGS: Not under the current state of the law. I think many people confuse the term bigamy and polygamy. Bigamy is a crime of fraud, where you essentially involved the state in a fraud. Your spouse doesn't know that you have another wife. You're not being honest with people. You may take out a marriage license and misrepresent your eligibility to the government authorities that issued the marriage license. That clearly is illegal in virtually every state.

Polygamy generally- does not involve the government. It generally involves people going to a religious leader whom they recognize. They don't involve the state in their decisions. And this religious leader solemnizes a marriage, they see it as a marriage. In the eyes of the law, it's - if we still had adultery statutes, it would fall under that heading or fornication. But even those statutes have been invalidated by the Supreme Court.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. The case in Texas is central - that was about homosexual sex, but you say it's central to this as well?

DRIGGS: It is. That case out of Texas is frequently referred to as gay sex case because it did involve sexual relations between two gay men. It is - flipping through my notes, looking up the name. I believe that's Lawrence versus Texas. It came down a couple of years ago. But it had it the effect of invalidating the criminal prosecution of these individuals who are engaging in sex acts that might previously have been prosecuted.

And that would have been the way to reach them. In the 19th century, that was the way a number of Mormons who practiced polygamy were prosecuted. But we're in a situation now where the court seems to say that adults are free to make up their own minds as to the kinds of relationships they want to enter into, but there is a clear, bright line between people over 18 and people under 18. And the Lawrence decision does not reach people under 18.

CONAN: What connection, if any, is there between Warren Jeffs' groups and other polygamist groups and the big church - the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is of course better known as the Mormon church?

DRIGGS: The Mormons. Yes, the LDS Church of which I'm a member, plural marriage was a central tenant of its belief system in the late 19th century. It goes back to the founder, Joseph Smith. There was enormous pressure, criminal prosecution, seizure of properties, the loss of almost all rights of citizenship applied to Mormons as a consequence of this and other Mormon practices.

And in 1890, the president of the Mormon church issued something Mormons called the manifesto, it says, okay, we're going to stop this. There were a number of other issues that were changed and it took literally a couple of generations.

But by 1920, it had pretty well - it was seized to be an official practice in the church at any level and the church was actively excommunicating people. Well, that created a body of Mormon traditionalists who objected not only to the dismissal of polygamy but communal living and a number of other practices, and they began to form a parallel religious community. They regard themselves as Mormons in every way, they regard themselves as really the true Mormons, and the big church has sort of fallen away and diluting itself in order to make itself more popular with the society as a whole.

CONAN: Well they say the big church as you describe it had sold out?

DRIGGS: Yes. They basically do say that, repeatedly. And as the big church goes through a series of changes that bring it closer to mainstream Protestant religion, the more the fundamentalist say, no, you can't do that. And a certain number of traditional Mormons go out the back door as this happens and find their way into fundamentalism.

And over the years, these fundamentalist communities have fractured into various groups. And Warren Jeffs now leads the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is one of those groups that is one of the bigger ones...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DRIGGS: ...but by no means the only one. Although it seems to be more aggressively involved in the marriage of people under the age of 18 in these plural marriages, most of the other groups draw a bright line themselves at age 18 and only involve adults in these relationships, and consequently they have less problems with the law than the FLDS do.

CONAN: And the FDLS, also, which of course predates Warren Jeffs, but they have colonized an area around the border of Utah and Arizona where they - they're not going to be prosecuted for anything because they are the law. They are the police, they are the judges, they're the mayors, they're everything.

DRIGGS: Well, yes and no. They're part of Washington. The community itself - it's actually Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah - sits right on the state line, main street is the state border. They are part of Mohave County, Arizona and Washington County, Utah. So they're subject to the authorities of those two counties, but it was so remote through much of its history that people barely knew they were there...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DRIGGS: ...much less reach them. They - first prosecutions there were in 1935; a handful of people, a few more in the '30s. There was a big major raid in 1944 all over several states and involved few other people. And then in 1953, the governor of Arizona initiated a huge raid where they basically arrested every adult in the community and took, virtually, every child in the community into custody and put them in the child welfare system.

That ended up being politically fatal for the governor of Arizona. He lost his office partly because of it. And because the authorities got so burned over the outcome of that, when they pretty much left these people alone for a long time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DRIGGS: And the community grew to around 10,000 people, although they were strictly located there. They were also spread out in the Rocky Mountain west in Canada and Mexico. So now, there are, I think, there may be seven or eight thousand people there now. Warren, when he - he became president with the death of his father, Rulon Jeffs. He took over from his father in 2002, and Warren has initiated the establishment of a new community in a very remote part of West Texas, Eldorado, and they've built what they call a temple there.

Many hundreds of people who've relocated there, they bought a very large tract of land and they're in the center of it and they have managed to kind of create a buffer around them in the outside world. And I think the more true believers of Warren's followers have relocated to Texas. He's also locating in a couple of other communities, but Texas seems to be the biggest of those new sites.

CONAN: Some of the stories about Warren Jeffs paint him almost as a cult leader. Do you think that's fair?

DRIGGS: I do not. I know Warren. I have not seen Mr. Jeffs since - oh, I think, December 2002 or 2003 was the last time I saw him. But I knew him over the years. He was the headmaster of a church school they had in Salt Lake City until he relocated to Colorado City with his dad in 1998. He always - he's college-educated. He's an accountant. He's a kind of a shy, tall, sort of pale, kind of geeky guy, and he always just struck me as sort of a nerdy, geeky kind of guy.

The portrayal of him is sort of Svengali, who's hypnotizing all of these people, I think, is very much off the mark. I believe that he has a very devoted following because of the office he holds. These people are...

CONAN: When they say prophet, they revere the leader as a prophet.

DRIGGS: As Moses and Abraham - he is an Old Testament prophet and God speaks through him and he speaks to the people as the voice of God. That's what his community generally believes. Now, I don't believe that every person who lives in that community receives him that way. I think that's sort of the cultural rhetoric. I have a lot of friends in the community, and among my friends, I wouldn't say that they all receive him that way. But he does have a great deal over respect and influence in the community by virtue of the office that he holds.

CONAN: Is there any check on his authority?

DRIGGS: No, there really isn't, other than the general check that, you know, a community only follows you as long they're willing to follow you. And when you drive them off a cliff, you know, at some point, you start losing them. And he has antagonized a lot of people in his community. There has been a kind of an exodus, and he's excommunicated a lot, thrown them out. And part of that process in them is your wives are taken away from you and reassigned to another husband and your children are told they're not to speak of you as father anymore. And frankly, I've been a little surprised that, that has happened with some of the families that I know, that they've actually gone along with that. Let me...

CONAN: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

DRIGGS: Go ahead. I think part of the conflict there was Warren is sort of the new guard in the community. The old guard - the people that he excommunicated were mostly the old guard - they generally had a view that they needed to be engaged with the outside world. They weren't going to keep their young people and prosperity in the community unless people had jobs. That meant being involved with education and employers and reaching out to the outside world.

It was always a view that this was not good, that you were somehow corrupted by this involvement with the outside world. And I think Warren has come to represent that viewpoint and the people who are kicked out were the advocates of involvement with the outside world.

CONAN: We're talking about religion and polygamy in America. In a moment, two women who've lived it and now have very different views on plural marriage. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about polygamy in America today and the fundamentalist sects that practice it. Our guest is Ken Driggs, an Atlanta defense attorney. He's written extensively about the legal history of polygamy. You have questions? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: You can also check out our blog at

And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. And this is John(ph). John's calling us from California.

JOHN: Hello?

CONAN: Hi, John. You're on the air.

JOHN: Oh, thanks very much. Yeah, I was - the whole subject picks my interest because both of my grandfathers were polygamous and I have really mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for polygamy. My father's mother was the second wife. And...

DRIGGS: I'm descended from a third wife.

JOHN: ...right, right. And I can see that polygamy - I think the only thing may be worse than polygamy is making it illegal because I think that the secrecy involved, it was necessitated by telling little kids, you know, don't talk about our family anywhere, was tough on - was really tough on them and also engendered what became psychologically bad habits that when problems did emerge - it may be even unrelated to polygamy - that need discussion, that need to be brought out from it a habit of playing it very close to the chest.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. When you say don't talk about it, it's clear your grandfather was not in a - on a community like the one we're talking about, but out in the regular world.

JOHN: ...they were in Salt Lake City. And it, that, I'm - they both practice polygamy at the time that the mainstream Mormon church still sanctioned it, though covertly. Actually, my dad's father married a fourth wife after the mainstream church no longer sanctioned it, and he was excommunicated for marrying his fourth wife - that was probably around 1915. But the - all the others married their additional wives after 1890, but before about 1907 or '08, where it really somewhere in there, became verboten(ph).

CONAN: And so this - you talk about it leads to a certain degree of paranoia, doesn't it? Do you think, John?

JOHN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Because if a 5-year-old goes to kindergarten and starts talking about, you know, his aunts or mothers or whatever, you know, on whatever term - my aunt, who lives next on the house next door with my brothers, other brothers and sisters, that could mean a visit from federal agents and a father end up going to the penitentiary.

Perhaps your guest knows more about the actual history of this. And I - but I was, you know, last time I was in Salt Lake and out at their restaurant, and I see a photograph of leaders of the church in federal prison doing time for polygamy, and it's the same photograph I saw from a family history that included some of my relatives in the photograph. So, you know, people took it pretty seriously.

CONAN: Yeah. Ken Driggs, let me ask you not so much about that, but are there polygamists who live - we're taking about this community on the Utah-Arizona border. Are more people in places like Salt Lake City or - that, you know, just hidden?

DRIGGS: I think there are more of them probably in urban areas. I have a lot of friends in the Salt Lake metro area. I know of pockets of them in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and as far east as Houston. Many times, you would not know. They pass fairly effectively in the community, kind of depends on the - the branch of this that they are affiliated with because their dress sometimes gives them away.

But I do think criminal prosecutions backfire. You tend to make martyrs and heroes out of the defendants who are prosecuted. You don't discourage the conduct. You drive them underground, you tell them the police and law enforcement authorities are not your friends, they are your enemy. And when you have other legitimate issues like, perhaps, spouse abuse or child abuse or routine thefts, things like that, the community is discouraged from engaging themselves with law enforcement if they are afraid that it's going to out them and result in some sort of prosecution. So, I think there are certainly other ways they should be going other than criminal prosecutions. I just don't think that works and I think it has a big downside.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is Anne Wilde, who's co-founder of Principle Voice of Polygamy, a pro-polygamy advocacy group. She joins us today from the studios of KCPW in Salt Lake City in Utah. Very good of you to join us today.

ANNE WILDE: Thank you.

CONAN: And as I understand it, you're not part of the Warren Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints?

WILDE: No, absolutely not. And I'm glad that Ken was able to distinguish it. That is only one of many groups that are considered as an umbrella term of fundamentalist Mormons. I consider myself to be what's called an independent fundamentalist Mormon, which means I don't belong to any of the groups.

Warren Jeffs is, like Ken mentioned, the largest, probably has around 8,000 now. Then, there's another one called the Allred group, AUB that has about seventy-five hundred. Then, there's a couple of them that have fifteen hundred and then some that have two or three hundred, so there's a wide diversity of - the people that call themselves fundamentalist Mormons.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And as I understand, very few, other than the Jeffs group, would support people being married under the age of 18.

WILDE: That's very true. We have encouraged, as Principal Voices, the leaders of the different groups to please, if at all possible, use their influence in their - with their young people so that they will not marry until they're at least age of 18.

CONAN: Why...

WILDE: And most of them, I think, are realizing the importance of that and they're complying with that...

CONAN: ...why?

WILDE: ...and a lot of them have done it all along.

CONAN: Excuse me. Why do you, as a woman, support polygamy? What's in it for you?

WILDE: I can see all kinds of advantages. But mainly, it is a strongly held religious belief. My husband and I wrote 65 books on gospel doctrines in history and in our research and study, we realized that this was originally a Bible doctrine. It was restored by Joseph Smith when the ODS church, mainstream church, was restored in 1830.

It was one of the tenants that followed right after that. And even though the mainstream church has given it up, we feel like it's still an eternal principle. And I can see a lot of advantages of just looking at it from a common sense point of view. Say, for example, well, in my own case, I was not able to have any children after my first marriage and I was able to enjoy the children of the other wives. And then two, there are some women that maybe didn't have an opportunity to get a college degree or have a career and so they got married in a plural family but they want children. They can make arrangements with the other sister wives and have the best of both worlds. They can have a family, the children are well cared for at home, and they can still go get an education or get a job.

CONAN: Nevertheless, does it not subjugate women to the rule of men?

WILDE: Absolutely not at all, in my case and in the cases that I know. I know you're going to have some families, monogamous and polygamous, where the husband is going to be more controlling than he should be. But that is not inherent in polygamy in my experience. So in my case, my husband was very open I had all the free agency I wanted. I certainly did not feel subjugated at all.

DRIGGS: Neal, let me...

CONAN: Ken Driggs, go ahead.

DRIGGS: ...comment on that. I've had a lot of exposure to a lot of families in various communities. I know there's this stereotype out there that these plural wives are little barefoot, pregnant, victimized, beat down. That is not what I see. You're always going to see some people are going to fit those stereotypes. I mean, that's just sort of the way human beings are.

But I was a little surprised at how many very strong, sort of in-your-face kind of personalities I encountered, and that it was not uncommon that my reading of the personalities was that the wives were much stronger personalities than the husbands in some of these marriages. So the stereotype just does not fit.

CONAN: Let's see if we could get a caller on the line, and this is Allison(ph). Allison is calling us from Portland, Oregon.



ALLISON: Yeah. I have always heard that part of the problem with polygamy is welfare fraud, that the husbands are not really supporting the wives and the wives are considered single mothers and they go on welfare.

CONAN: Ken Driggs, that's been an allegation certainly in the Warren Jeffs' case, where...


CONAN: ...since these marriages aren't registered, these are all single mothers - at least according to the state - and they apply for welfare.

DRIGGS: I have heard that allegation. I have not seen anybody convicted. I mean, I haven't seen any that has been established. I'm not going to say that it's not a factor down in Colorado City and I haven't seen anything anywhere that raised that flag with me with some of these other groups, at least the groups that I know.

WILDE: Could I add to that?

CONAN: Yes. Go ahead, please, Anne Wilde.

WILDE: In December of 2000, three of us wrote a book called "Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage." As part of that book, we included a chapter printing the results of a questionnaire that we mailed out to several hundred women that are living plural marriage. We found, in one of our questions, was had they ever been on welfare for longer than just a few months at a time? And, you know, sometimes, things come up, well that's understandable.

There was a very low percentage of the women that responded that questionnaire other than had ever been on welfare. Really, in reality, this principle is all about providing for families. So in a lot of times, the plural wives will have jobs to help in that financial support.

DRIGGS: There is a tradition of sort of entrepreneurial efforts in fundamentalism that I have seen, and I've encountered a lot of women who ran their own businesses, had their own sort of income bases independent of their husbands. I don't know that that's necessarily majority, but it's certainly not an uncommon phenomenon in the fundamentalist world that I've seen.

CONAN: Hmm. Anne Wilde, before we let you go, I think a lot of people have probably seen the television show, "Big Love," and they wonder, doesn't jealousy get in the way?

WILDE: Well, in a lot of families I'm sure that's true. I was very blessed I did not have that experience. And, I guess, the main reason for that is I was very assured of my husband's love. He was a wonderful, kind man. And this is not a principle of everybody. You have to have a certain disposition. You have to have a strong religious testimony. And I had a very happy plural marriage for 33 years. My husband died five years ago. So I did not experience that.

But I have heard other plural wives say, yes, there is an amount element of jealousy. But if they have that religious foundation that they know this is something that they're supposed to do, they just work through it. And there is different ways of coping with that, and usually, it's not a long-lasting situation. They get beyond that.

CONAN: Hmm. Anne Wilde, thanks so much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

WILDE: Thank you.

CONAN: Anne Wilde, co-founder of Principle Voices of Polygamy. She joined us today from KCPW in Salt Lake City in Utah.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Dan(ph), Dan with us from Denver, Colorado.

DAN: Yes. I'm just curious, what is illegal principle behind it? Because in this day and age, couples can do whatever they want, essentially, but any subsequent marriage would just be not a legal marriage? . I don't understand what is illegal.

CONAN: I think consenting adults. But, anyway, can you help us out, Ken Driggs?

DRIGGS: Yes. Well, I mean, if there is a crime that many states have called bigamy. Bigamy is a crime of fraud where people are not told about the other spouse and they go down and try to get a marriage license. There's a fraud element there. Basically, these are not volunteers coming into these relationships. That's against the law, pretty much everywhere.

Polygamy, as most of these people understand it, is not a fraud crime. Everybody knows what they're getting into. They have agreed to it, and they do not involve the state in it. When that involves adults - and I'm not talking about minors but people 18 and over - there really isn't a crime there anymore. So right now that is not illegal. And that is one of the results of Lawrence versus Texas, a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision that pretty much opened up this kind of relationships to freewill.

CONAN: Hmm. Did that help you out, Dan?

DAN: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: All right. Appreciate the phone call.

We're talking with Ken Driggs, a defense attorney in Atlanta who's written a lot about the legal history of polygamy.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And joining us now is Rowenna Erickson, co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a group that advocates against plural marriage. And she joins us from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah.

And thanks very much.

ROWENNA ERICKSON: You're welcome.

CONAN: And you are a former polygamist. What prompted you to leave?

ERICKSON: My own spiritual strivings and seekings. I was born and raised in a polygamist group here in Salt Lake, and my father-in-law was the founder of the group that I was a part of. And my mother believed in it wholeheartedly so I was more or less conditioned to believe in it, which had all stemmed from Joseph Smith's teachings that if you have plural wives, you can become a god in eternity. And that's the ultimate goal that they want to attain. So thereby, the husbands, being capable of being a god, populating other worlds, and he needs all of these wives to assist him in populating them.

CONAN: The way you describe it, it sounds like the wife is very much of a secondary role.

ERICKSON: She is. But, you know, when you think about it - and just everybody think out there - here's a man suddenly put into the role of he can have all of these wives now because he is going to be really cool on the other side. He's going to become a god. And I don't believe it's a natural element in a human being's life to be able to live with several women sexually and he himself maintain civility and also maintain a lifestyle that is conducive to the human nature. What I experienced, from my point of view, was I lived it because that's what I was taught I was supposed to do.

CONAN: It seems to me, if you were raised in this sort of atmosphere and spent your early life in it, once you left, it must have been difficult.

ERICKSON: Well, very difficult. And as I evolved in this and observed it, I never experienced love from my husband, a real love, a marital love, or I myself having ever love a man because I was restricted from it. The belief system was you never fall in love - only when you get married - and then you couldn't learn to love your husband. Well, that doesn't work. And then, as you think about the unnaturalness about it, it causes people to do deviant things, and perversion comes in, sexual abuse, all sorts of disorders come in upon it.

And as I tried to maintain some normalcy in this, raising eight children, having all of them at home, natural childbirth, not being able to associate with the outside world, always lying, making up stories to people to justify who my husband was, and lying to the government to get food stamps, and living in poverty beyond what anybody should be required to do because I was sacrificing.

And then, as time went on, I thought, this isn't right. Suddenly, my own spirituality start to take precedence over my own old belief system, questioning what I had been taught, and we are taught to never question the authority. And so it's just right for cultish behavior. And it is a cult - I don't care what anybody says, it's a cult.

So as I was...

CONAN: Should it be outlawed, do you think?

ERICKSON: Yes, it should. And in the group that I came from, there is a lot of incest, intermarrying because they think they are royal lineage, and perversion gets out of hand. It is just - they're crazy. I know of fathers in that Colorado City group, their belief is that God had sex with Mary and conceived Jesus. So they can have sex with their daughters, and I have many friends from Colorado City who escaped and came to me for help.

And later, Tapestry came into existence to assist them, and they're still some of my best friends. And their healing triggered my healing, and I had to deal with a lot of crap coming out of there - the lies, the innuendoes that I have been taught, the fear, how I had lied to my children, how they had grown up without a father. And they were dysfunctional - most everybody is. But this is even beyond dysfunction.

CONAN: Rowenna Erickson, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

ERICKSON: You're welcome.

CONAN: Rowenna Erickson is co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy. She's been talking to us from her home in Salt Lake City in Utah.

We'll be - coming up, we're talking more with Ken Driggs about the legal history of polygamy. We'll also be talking about the time-honored sports tradition of stealing signs.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: Let's continue now our conversation about the practice of polygamy in America. Our guest is Ken Driggs. He is an Atlanta defense attorney who's written extensively about the legal history of polygamy.

And, Ken, I need to ask you, a lot of e-mailers have called us and written us to say, are there any groups that allow multiple husbands, a woman to have multiple husbands?

DRIGGS: I am completely unaware of that. I've never encountered that.

CONAN: And one other question, one difference between the main church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church if you will, and these fundamentalist groups, one other difference, the Mormon church, many years ago, allowed African-Americans in. Do the fundamentalist groups do that?

DRIGGS: No, they do not. In 1978 - prior to 1978, the LDS church excluded African-Americans from holding the lay priesthood. There's not a paid clergy in Mormonism. In 1978, the church opened that up to all individuals and it's resulted in a lot of black Mormons. I actually attend a congregation that's about 40 percent black. That has not happened in fundamentalist Mormon communities. They regard that as another indication of how the church has fallen away in an attempt to accommodate itself to the larger society.

I do see an awful lot of Hispanic or Mexican Mormons or fundamentalist Mormons in some of the groups, but you don't see - you never see any black fundamentalist Mormons.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Christopher(ph), Christopher calling us from Mali, the country in Africa.

CHRISTOPHER: Hi. Yeah. I'm actually LDS myself, but living in a Muslim culture where polygamy is accepted and I'm friends with lots of co-wives and men with multiple wives. I know there are immigrants in the United States, and this was (unintelligible) of the family. They realized they have more than one wife there. How is that being embraced or are they having to keep that a hidden fact for immigrants who - which the Koran allows up to four wives, I know. I just wonder what the atmosphere is?

CONAN: Ken Driggs?

DRIGGS: Actually, there are some black Muslim polygamists in Atlanta, a couple of whom have come into some fairly prominent news stories. There is an incidence of that. These are American-born in Atlanta. There is an old anti- Mormon statute - I believe, it's still on the books - that says you may not emigrate into the United States if you are a part of a polygamous family or if you are part of a religious community that teaches it - directed at Mormons. And I think it's still on the books. I suspect that they just sort of winked at that and allow many of these people to emigrate.

I am aware of at least one polygamous wife from Canada who was deported by the United States because she had entered into a polygamous marriage, and the fed saw that as a violation of federal law.

CONAN: Christopher, I wonder, the Mormon church argues strongly against polygamy. How has your experience in Mali - has that changed your views on the subject?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, in my understanding, the way I look at it in the Mormon Church is that polygamy was so incommensurate with the culture that it was a detriment to the actual church, which we are trying to build. And so now, I'm here and polygamy is accepted, and I'm not sure quite how to look at it because some of those same abuses that happened in the States can happen here.

And on the other hand, I've seen some cases where their co-wives are best friends. They help raise children together. It seems like a good situation, but it is interesting culturally. It's still hard for me to understand and to accept, but to see in action is, I guess, it does open my eyes a little bit.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, thanks very much for the call, Christopher. We appreciate it.


CONAN: Bye-bye.

DRIGGS: It's my understanding that the present LDS Church's policy is if you are in a polygamous marriage in a country where it's legal and you wish to become a Mormon, you must become a monogamous before they allow you to join the church, which basically forces you to break up your family.


DRIGGS: And that's very ironic considering the church's history.

CONAN: And certainly its - well, its emphasis on family values as well.

Anyway, let's get another caller in. This is Carol(ph), Carol calling us from Salt Lake City.

CAROL: Yes. Hi.


CAROL: I just wanted to let you know that jealousy does sometimes affect the family, and that was my experience. I joined a polygamous family. I'm not part of a group. And the first wife he had - he had had three wives. She came in as his third wife. She ran off the first two wives and then when I joined the family, she divorced him, and ended the family that way because of jealousy.

CONAN: Jealousy.

CAROL: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: I wonder. Carol, have you seen the TV show "Big Love?"

CAROL: Yes, I have.

CONAN: Well, it's one of the paid cable shows. Does your - did your experience bear much relation to that?

CAROL: Well, I haven't watched too many episodes, but the few that I did see - yes, actually, it really plays pretty close to real life there. I think that a woman really can't help but feel those feelings. But like Anne Wilde said, and I know her personally, like Anne Wilde said that they - you have to overcome those feelings. You have to get beyond them and above them. And it can make you a better person.

CONAN: It didn't work out in your case, though?

CAROL: Well, I was willing to stick it out but she had a legal - she actually had a civil marriage with him and she divorced him and broke up the family.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CAROL: But I was - well, I was, you know, in the learning curve. I was willing to stick it out, but like what Anne Wilde said, it's not for everyone. You really have to be willing to put other people's needs ahead of your own, and it's hard to do as...

CONAN: Ken Driggs, I guess I have to ask you the question about that TV show as well. You have had a lot of experience visiting in polygamous communities.

DRIGGS: I think a lot of it is pretty close to the mark. I actually know some families that struck me as very similar to the main family in the community.

The compound group, the sort of bad guys in the show, obviously are on attempt to portray a BFLDS or possibly the Davis County Cooperative people. But I think the main family is very similar to some families I know, and it's fairly accurate.

Let me mention one of the thing on this jealousy thing. I think it makes a big difference if you were raised in a polygamous household - and this is the family you knew - as opposed to if you're coming out of a monogamous tradition. A lot of plural wives were raised in plural homes, so it's something they knew, and they had some experience with dealing with those issues. So I think that's a big factor on how well you adjust.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Carol, thanks very much for the call.

CAROL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And, Ken Driggs, you mentioned earlier the Texas Supreme Court case that outlawed sodomy based on a gay couple, homosexual males. During the campaign and - political campaigns in a number of states, the constitutional amendments in some states is to ban gay marriage, there's been a lot of arguments saying that, you know, look, if you allow this, the next thing you're going to allow is polygamy. Does this resonate throughout these communities?

DRIGGS: I don't know that it resonates throughout the communities. There are a relatively small number of them that are sophisticated in the law, but I think that's true and it was a United States Supreme Court decision, which means - and it was interpreting federal constitutional law, which means it applies to everybody.

And while it was about prosecuting consenting sexual conduct, which is - it doesn't mean marriage or anything like that - but it also, I think, pulled the plug on the prosecution of consenting adults in polygamous relationships.

It had nothing to do with marriages and authorizing a marriage. I think that's a misinformation when people say that that's the result of it. But it can - yeah, it allows these families to exist without being criminally prosecuted at least for their marital relations.

CONAN: Ken Driggs...

DRIGGS: When I say marital, I mean, as they see it.

CONAN: As they see it. Ken Driggs, a defense attorney in Atlanta. He joined us today from the studios of WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. Thanks so much for your time today.

DRIGGS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: When we come back, we'll talk about stealing signs.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. 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.