Will the polygamy debate ever be the same?

'Big Love' debut
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Correction: One of four research papers analyzing polygamy for the Status of Women Canada and the Department of Justice Canada recommended decriminalization. A story in Sunday's edition of The Salt Lake Tribune incorrectly characterized the research.

Years ago, Ed Firmage fought "tooth and nail" to get the first African-American in a television ad.

He was an intern for Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, one of several tasked with working on civil rights issues. They had plenty of clout and leaned on one appliance company, which argued it would never sell another refrigerator. But he and his colleagues leaned harder and got the job done.

"Once you do that, the game is over," said Firmage, a professor of law emeritus at University of Utah law college.

Which is why he believes that, with the launch tonight of HBO's new series "Big Love," the debate about polygamy is about to change forever.

Here, as elsewhere in the nation, there is continuing debate over what constitutes a family, what religious and privacy rights consenting adults have and who should have access to marriage - a discussion broad enough that it includes decriminalization of polygamy and protection, and expansion, of gay rights.

The slippery slope corollary between the two goes something like this: Approve of one and the other is sure to follow.

Which begs the question of how "Big Love" might soften or harden the barriers to one, if not the other.

Set in Utah, the series chronicles the lives of a polygamist and his three wives. It has an all-star cast, snappy dialogue, intriguing plot lines and is getting mostly rave reviews from critics.

For most viewers, the show will serve as a first exposure to polygamy - a subject Utahns are familiar with from both personal and public perspectives. Many native Utahns have polygamist ancestors and the topic is a local media staple, pushed into the spotlight in recent years by critics and proponents, law enforcement and practitioners of The Principle, as plural marriage is known.

The competing views can be summed up this way: Critics see polygamy as inherently abusive and want it prosecuted. Proponents see it as a viable alternative, religiously based family form and want it decriminalized.

State authorities have taken a middle ground, vowing to prosecute child abuse, domestic violence and fraud but to leave alone consenting adults who engage in polygamy.

HBO is framing the series as yet another look at the human condition through an unconventional lens: the Mafia, funeral homes, single thirtysomething women and now polygamists.

It is family and marriage that are at the core of "Big Love," said Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, the show's creators.

The show's hook is "the overall social, largely revulsion, against the lifestyle and the marriage they practice," he said.

Bill Paxton, who plays the husband, said, "This show talks about the freedom in this country. Are we free to choose who we want to live with? Well, yes, but we can't have the legal rights together."

Which sounds a lot like observations made about another issue: gay marriage.

Olsen said he and Scheffer, who according to the Los Angeles Times are partners, took note of how polygamists embraced the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas U.S. Supreme Court ruling recognizing gays' privacy rights. Polygamists have moved to use it to win constitutional recognition of their rights, "and we thought that just made such interesting, strange, and perverse bedfellows that it was just too delicious to not use."

"Big Love" also comes at a time when there is a growing clamor to decriminalize polygamy.

In Canada, that view gained momentum in November after one of four researcher papers analyzing polygamy for the Status of Women Canada and the Department of Justice Canada recommended decriminalization.

Polygamists there are also cleaving to a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that found swinger's clubs legal, saying consensual conduct behind locked doors "can hardly be supposed to jeopardize a society as vigorous and tolerant as Canadian society." In Utah, two lawsuits are attacking bans on polygamy. A Utah Supreme Court ruling is imminent on a religious freedom challenge filed by former Hildale police officer Rodney Holm. Decriminalizing polygamy would remove a shroud of secrecy over tens of thousands of Utahns who fear prosecution, said his attorney, Rod Parker.

The second challenge - filed by a Salt Lake County man, his legal wife and a second woman - is before a federal appeals court and likely headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. It asks the court to decriminalize polygamy based on religious and privacy rights of adults in consensual relationships.

Firmage has long advocated for the decriminalization of polygamy, allowing practitioners to lead open lives and helping authorities tackle abuses.

Law is rightfully used to go after spouse abuse, educational neglect and child abuse but it is wrong to use it to "come down on a whole culture," he said.

As those legal arguments continue, Utah and Arizona authorities have taken control of the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the prototype for the "Big Love" compound of Juniper Creek.

The towns are home to the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but a church property trust is now controlled by a Utah court; its public school is in Arizona administrators' hands; police officers and a judge who are polygamists have been bounced from their jobs; and eight men are charged with engaging in underage marriages. FLDS Prophet Warren Jeffs - the main model for the sinister prophet of "Big Love" - is a fugitive, wanted on an Arizona charge of arranging an underage marriage. Olsen and Scheffer say "Big Love" will approach polygamy in a way that doesn't "short shrift the abuses of polygamy or overly glamorize polygamy."

Their ability to walk that line has critics and proponents worried.

"In a best case scenario, it would be a show that portrays the complexity of the human relationships, real relationships that have ups and downs, joys and disappointments," said Mary Batchelor, a co-founder of the advocacy group Principle Voices. "In a worst case scenario, it is a shallow show that doesn't represent the depth that exists in real relationships and gives short shrift to interpersonal relationships by only focusing on sexuality."

Vicky Prunty, of Tapestry Against Polygamy, also makes a best case/worse case observation.

"It could lead individuals into thinking polygamy is a rosy lifestyle and that it can be one big love fest," Prunty said. Or, "It could end up having a positive effect, if enough people are outraged. I hope the end result will be that someone out there in the nation, perhaps many, will want to do something about this once they hear that polygamy is happening today in large amounts - in Utah, Arizona and other states - and that this is just not a fairy-tale."