SALT LAKE CITY — Mary Batchelor called the scene last month in the Utah Capitol “amazing.” The legislative chamber was “filled to overflowing” with people waiting to testify on a bill containing provisions targeting polygamists like Batchelor. Three people raised their hands to speak in favor of the bill — and the rest of the crowd, nearly 100 people, raised their hands to speak against it.

It was “the largest gathering of polygamists at the Utah Capitol in over 100 years,” Batchelor said.

And the polygamists' activism apparently yielded some dividends: While the final version of the bill did increase penalties against clergy who perform ceremonies for “prohibited marriages” (such as polygamy) that involve minor children, polygamy itself was reduced to a misdemeanor from a felony.

Outside Utah, few have heard of American polygamists. But an estimated 30,000 Utah residents live in polygamous relationships, and a recent series of criminal investigations and state bills aimed at preventing the practice have drawn this normally quiet minority into the spotlight.

In response, polygamists are citing widening societal recognition of same-sex marriage as a reason why their own unusual “marriages” should not face legal sanctions.

The pro-polygamy Women's Religious Liberties Union has protested on the steps of the Salt Lake City Tribune building, decrying the newspaper's portrayal of polyga-mists.

And most recently, the group Principle Voices has released Voices in Harmony, a collection of personal narratives from 95 “plural wives” and five other women who support polygamy. Mary Batchelor is one of the book's three editors, all of whom live in polygamous relationships. They visited the state capitol last November and again in February to make their case to legislators.

The editors of Voices in Harmony said that they were not seeking state approval of their marriages, but simply trying to have bigamy decriminalized.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promoted the practice of having multiple wives in the sect's formative years in the mid-1800s, but the church banned polygamy in 1890 and now excommunicates any member who practices it. As well, it was made a felony under the Utah state constitution. However, splinter groups still insist that polygamy was ordained by God.

David Zolman, a former member of the Utah House of Representatives, has led the fight to decriminalize polygamy. He expressed hope that in the future, a judge will rule that Utah's ban on the practice violates the First Amendment, although the U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled that anti-bigamy laws are constitutional.

Zolman said marriage law should ban underage marriage and incest, but nothing more. As for same-sex marriage, “I'm not there yet, though I appreciate that they want to be on the cutting edge,” he said. He added, “The gay and lesbian success in their public relations has made people realize, if we're going to accept lesbian and homosexual commitment ceremonies,” why not polygamy as well?

ACLU Backs Polygamy

Stephen Clark, legal director for the Utah branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that polygamy should be “a protected exercise of religious liberty.”

While many supporters of homosexual marriage disapprove of polygamy, and many polygamists disapprove of homosexuality, some activists nonetheless find it useful to link the polygamy movement with the more accepted homosexual movement.

For example, Clark told the Salt Lake City Tribune, “Talking to Utah's polygamists is like talking to gays and lesbians who really want the right to live their lives, and not live in fear because of whom they love. The bigamy statute, like sodomy statutes and like other anachronistic moralistic legislation, goes to the core of what the Supreme Court identifies as important fundamental privacy rights.”

Batchelor said that the editors of Voices in Harmony “are not involved in the gay rights movement. We do not have an alliance with them, nor do we anticipate one in the future.” But, she added, “We understand that any strides we may make politically may unintentionally and incidentally impact or influence them as well.”

Batchelor said that she and other polygamists “have no choice” but to use the language of “personal choice” in order to gain acceptance.

Maggie Gallagher, a syndicated columnist and co-author of The Case for Marriage, said the polygamy movement is “part of a general model, which is that we should treat all kinds of relationships equally.”

Gallagher said that polygamy “does not tend to be associated with democratic societies or with mutual intimacy in marriage. It reduces intimacy not only between husband and wives, but between father and children.”

As for religious liberty, Gallagher responded, “If marriage is going to fulfill an important societal role, its legal character cannot vary according to the religious status of the people who made it.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “[p]olygamy is contrary to conjugal love which is undidvided and exclusive” (No. 1645), and that polygamy is an offense against the dignity of marriage (No. 2387).

An Ex-Wife's Story

Like the editors of Voices in Harmony, Vicky Prunty was a “plural wife.” But Prunty, one of the founders of the anti-polygamy support group Tapestry Against Polygamy, said her marriage was “more like a dictatorship.”

Prunty said her first husband used the fact that she was not his only wife to control her. For example, he forbade the family to celebrate holidays, threatening that if she brought home a Christmas tree, he would “pack his bags and go to the other wife's house.”

“It's almost as if you're a single mother, but a mistress too,” Prunty recalled. If the husband treats his wives differently, he provokes jealousy, but if he treats them alike, “you feel like you're a clone, a Xeroxed copy of someone else.”

Prunty left the marriage, but became a “third wife” to another man. Before their first year of marriage was up, her husband told her, “I never believed in the religion. I just did it for the ego. What man would-n't want to have sex with more than one wife?”

She burst into tears, rushed to take a shower, and tried to scrub away the sense of violation she felt. She left polygamy for good, but found it “almost impossible to get any legal help, housing, anything.”

Prunty responded to the arguments made by the Voices in Harmony editors by saying, “No woman has to feel that they need another wife in the family to be a whole woman, to be a whole wife, to be a whole mother. You're good enough to be number one.”