I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do

The same-sex-marriage debate--and polygamy's rising cultural profile--has encouraged once secretive plural families to fight for recognition of their unions

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Peter Bohler for TIME

Joe Darger with his three wives, from left, Vicki, Val and Alina. Vicki and Val are identical twins.

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Mackert was part of the same sect as Warren Jeffs, whose Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas was raided by state authorities in 2008. In March, Wendell Loy Nielsen, one of Jeffs' lieutenants, became the 11th man convicted as a result of that raid. But unlike most of the others, he was not convicted of sexual assault of a child; his wives were older, so he got a 10-year sentence for bigamy. "Texas has had the courage to do what Utah wouldn't," says Mackert. In what might be considered an end run around Utah authorities, the Department of Justice recently filed a federal lawsuit against two FLDS towns, claiming, among other things, religious discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. "Independents like the Darger family can be O.K.," says John Llewellyn, the author of several books on polygamy. "But 90% of the families are in a [closed] group." Utah authorities say all the fundamentalist groups have agreed to wait until girls are at least 18 when they marry. Policing that is another issue."If we found out they weren't waiting," says Paul Murphy, the spokesman for Utah's attorney general, "we'd be very disappointed."

The U.S. is not the only country wrestling with these issues. After several failed attempts at prosecuting polygamists in British Columbia, the Canadian province put its marriage laws under the gavel last year. The court heard arguments for and against legalizing polygamy. Supporters of multiparty marriage argued that outlawing polygamy is a restriction of freedom of religion and tantamount to allowing the state to regulate people's bedroom activities. Legal recognition would bring these families into the mainstream and, in doing so, help prevent practices such as forcing young girls to marry and having nonlegal wives claim welfare as single mothers, a form of civil disobedience polygamists call "bleeding the beast." Several plural wives, including Alina Darger, testified that they were willingly married.

But polygamy doesn't just subjugate women and victimize girls, the law's supporters argued; it harms men too. Younger and poorer men struggle to find partners in polygamous communities, where a large pool of single males becomes a destabilizing influence. Monogamous norms, says Henrich, who was called on as an expert witness in the British Columbia case, "lead to greater economic success, more trade and lower crime."

Then there are the children. Polygamous parents contend that children raised with many parents benefit from having more adults invested in their well-being. But in studies comparing 19th century children of wealthy polygamous families with those of less well-off monogamous ones, more of the latter lived beyond the age of 15. Experts believe this is because monogamy shifts the father's attention from acquiring wives to investing in children. In the Darger family, for example, Joe admits it's a struggle to be an involved dad to 23 kids. "It's important for me to physically touch my kids every day," he says. "But I don't go to all the school meetings. I rely on their mothers to be the eyes and ears."

In the British Columbia case, Judge Robert Bauman ruled that the polygamy ban infringed on the religious rights of some citizens, but because the practice was inherently harmful, the infringement was justifiable.

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