The Dargers gather for brunch just like any wholesome family, except their's consists of one husband, three wives and 23 living children.

Living Outside the Law

Denounced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890, polygamy became illegal in Utah as part of the drive for statehood and was forced to the edges of Mormon society. The Dargers, who spent time talking about their lifestyle with Utah legislators during the 2013 session, came out publicly when their book was released two years ago. Despite living within the boundaries of the law in every other aspect, they’re in constant fear they could be prosecuted, says Vicki Darger, who married Joe in a joint ceremony with Alina 23 years ago. Twin sister Val became the third Darger wife a decade later. “It’s still on the books, and it’s still a threat.”

It’s something former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, was forced to address. A look at the number of practicing polygamists—as many as 60,000 across the state—convinced Shurtleff it would be impossible to enforce the law on grounds of practice alone. “There was no way we could go after all of them,” he says of the decision to shift policy away from prosecuting simply on the basis of multiple wives.

He pushed to reduce bigamy between adults to a misdemeanor. “I thought that would be the middle ground, [but] in the early days, the reaction was, ‘Just shut up. You’re bringing too much attention to Utah,’” says Shurtleff. But he saw a shift after Big Love, which ran for five seasons. “A little later, I got, ‘We agree with you. This is a good position.’ It became something people could finally talk about.” But state bigamy laws, he believes, won’t change at a legislative level. It will require the courts to get involved.

Challenging Constitutionality

Another TV family, the Browns of TLC’s reality hit Sister Wives, is taking on that challenge.

The show opened the door to the Lehi family’s home in 2010 when husband Kody was courting a fourth wife. Soon after, police opened an investigation that ended when the Utah County prosecutor decided not to pursue bigamy charges. The Browns have since moved to Nevada and responded by challenging the constitutionality of the Utah statute that makes plural marriage illegal.

“They are seeking what most families take for granted: the ability to structure their lives according to their values and beliefs,” their attorney, Jonathan Turley, said in January.

The Browns, like the Dargers, aren’t asking for the right to legally marry more than one person. Darger and his wives just want to organize their family structure however they choose. “It has nothing to do with multiple marriage licenses,” says Darger, who is only legally married to Alina, with whom he first exchanged vows. “In a nutshell, we purport to be married, so it’s really a matter of free speech. It’s about my language and my faith.”

But legalizing polygamy could invite more fraud and abuse, says Kristyn Decker, who spent the first 50 years of her life as a member of the Apostolic United Brethren, Utah’s second largest polygamist sect. She founded Sound Choices Coalition, which advocates that polygamy remain a crime unless stronger laws protecting women and children are implemented, and says programs like Sister Wives offer a minority view.

“The Dargers and the Browns are an anomaly,” she says. “I don’t want the world to think this is what polygamy looks like. [Society] has already turned its back on [the crimes] happening way too long . . . Decriminalizing it will just make it easier for the perverts this religion draws.”

Olsen says it’s clear the conversation about polygamy began to change in the years following Big Love’s premiere, something he’s not sure is a positive. “We’ll take credit, but whether we’re proud of it, intended it and support it are all separate questions,” he says, noting he worries a blanket decriminalization would “support abusive communities and practices.” Allowing families like the Dargers and Browns to live openly and without fear of repercussion, however, is something he’d champion.

With Sister Wives on hiatus and Big Love now on DVD, attention over polygamy has waned, but, says Olsen, the programs laid the groundwork for changing perceptions. “When the spotlight moves on, like with many movements, it doesn’t mean the topic regresses,” he says. “It’s just waiting for something to take it to the next level. 

Next>>>Part 4 Dispatches From Short Creek

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