SALT LAKE CITY As far as the residents of Utah are concerned, it’s bad enough that the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City have already been dubbed “the Mormon Games.”
On the other hand, it could be worse. They could become the “Polygamy Games.”
The state’s unique plural-marriage subculture is proving irresistible to the national and international press, who have taken a break from writing about the Olympic bribery scandal to focus on men besides Osama bin Laden with more than one wife.
“I’ve gotten calls from Holland, England, Sweden, France, Canada at least a dozen countries,” said Mary Batchelor, a Utah woman married to a polygamist and author of a book on the subject. “It’s natural. In any Olympics, you’re going to get a variety of stories about the culture and surroundings.”
Of course, Utah leaders would prefer those stories to discuss the sweeping beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the majesty of the Great Salt Lake, not the estimated 30,000 residents who live in plural marriages. But they’re not getting any help from activists on both sides of the issue, who have seized upon the Olympics, which begin Feb. 8, as an opportunity to give their sides of the story.
“There seems to be a press conference [by polygamists] at the Capitol every other day,” said Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office. “They seem to be using the Olympics as an opportunity to tell the world about their lifestyle.”
Not helping matters is Polygamy Porter, a newly brewed Utah beer whose label shows a man cavorting with several women. The beer’s slogan urges customers to bring some home “for the wives.”
Vicky Prunty, director of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a group of women involved in polygamist marriages, says Utah leaders have only themselves to blame for the unwanted publicity. She accuses them of not cracking down on polygamy.
“It’s already been quite an embarrassment,” Mrs. Prunty said. “They definitely don’t want to bring any attention to this, but the fact is, it’s right here in our own back yard, and there are 10,000 press here in town.”
In fact, the legislature did make several attempts to crack down on polygamy last year, raising the age of consent and hiring an investigator in the Attorney General’s Office to probe “secret societies.” Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt’s brother, David, the Juab County prosecutor, did his part by bringing charges against the state’s most outspoken polygamist, Tom Green, who was convicted last year on four counts of bigamy.
But those efforts backfired. Instead of lying low, some polygamists banded together and began lobbying for their right to practice plural marriage as part of their First Amendment freedoms. Green’s five wives became his most vocal defenders, calling him a victim of religious persecution.
On Tuesday, the Coalition for Religious Freedom and Tolerance went to the state Capitol to demand a constitutional amendment that would legalize polygamy. Plural marriage is illegal under the state constitution.
Meanwhile, opponents of polygamy also are taking advantage of the media attention. The National Organization for Women plans to hold a news conference here in the days before the Olympics denouncing polygamists, which one NOW official last week described as “religious extremists” comparable to the Taliban.
“If it hadn’t been for the Olympics coming, I don’t think we would have gotten the polygamy czar, but now we need to get them to do something,” Mrs. Prunty said.
At least one polygamist has tried to keep the lid on unflattering publicity. Owen Allred, 87, the leader of the Allred clan, told the Salt Lake Tribune that he and his family had agreed “not to talk to the media or give out any information about our people.”
Rumor quickly spread that the clan had been pressured by the Attorney General’s Office, which Mr. Murphy flatly denied. “Ron Barton, our investigator of closed communities, had a conversation with one of the Allreds, who said, ‘I think we’ll just keep quiet during the Olympics.’ Ron said, ‘That’s a good idea,’” Mr. Murphy said.
Mr. Allred “just doesn’t want to embarrass Utah,” said former legislator David Zolman. “He says, ‘Let the Olympics take place without a hitch.’”
Polygamists say they believe in the original teachings of Joseph Smith, prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who practiced polygamy. Plural marriage was outlawed by the church in 1896 after a revelation, which polygamists believe was done so Utah could join the Union.
Although some in Utah are no doubt gritting their teeth at the spate of polygamy publicity, Mr. Murphy says many will be unfazed. “We’re used to it,” he said. “It’s just part of our culture.”