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At last. We've cracked the shell of polygamy. The soft center is in sight.

With Warren Jeffs' conviction as an accomplice to rape, that St. George jury, acting for all of us, has rejected the practice once and for all and put a cap on our perpetual embarrassment. What a relief.

Local TV anchors ran over at the mouth. Attorney General Mark Shurtleff rose from his sickbed to approve a statement worthy of an episode of "Law and Order." The victim, Elissa Wall, appeared on camera, pledging - a la feminist lawyer Gloria Allred - to continue to fight for FLDS girls and women. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. figured the verdict will minimize the state's news-of-the-weird quotient. And flush from victory, prosecutors finally charged her one-time "husband," Allen Steed, with rape.

Surely this means the end of marrying off nubile young girls to dirty old men. Certainly the power of theocrats like Jeffs, who manipulate and abuse their followers to enrich and empower themselves, will decline. And those Betty Grable bangs and gunnysack dresses - haute polygamist fashion - can be mothballed.


Because if not, all this back-patting seems a bit premature.

Emboldened Arizona prosecutors plan to try Jeffs on similar sex charges. Along with Utah, they have charged him for his year on the lam. Jeffs will be in prison for a long time. There is talk of a "changing landscape." Anti-polygamy activists call the verdict a "first step." But I wonder.

U.S. presidents from Buchanan to Cleveland and members of Congress figured they'd stamped out polygamy when they forced the Mormons to give up plural marriage before Utah could become a state. No doubt the Arizona State Police and National Guard convinced themselves they were well on their way to eradicating polygamy after the raid on Shortcreek in 1953.

But like morning glory, polygamy still came back. Tom Green made 13-year-old Linda Kunz, his pretty little stepdaughter, his only legal wife. John Kingston beat his 16-year-old daughter Mary Ann unconscious when she tried to flee her life as the 15th wife of his brother. And Jeffs sent 14-year-old Wall and 19-year-old Steed to their honeymoon bed with their eternal salvation hanging in the balance.

Part of the problem is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has given up polygamy on earth, but not in heaven. Church faithful commonly are taught that plural marriage is possible in the hereafter. It's part of the eternal family model for the celestial kingdom. That might help "fundamentalist Mormons" justify their complicated families.

Add to that the fact that underage marriages have the tacit approval of state lawmakers, who have left the minimum age for legal union at 15.

Jeffs may stay in prison, but there will be other megalomaniacs to take his place and use his methods: Putting an unlimited supply of wives and children to work building private kingdoms in the hinterlands of Utah, Texas and British Columbia. Some will simply use polygamy to satisfy their lust for young nieces and neighbor girls.

"There are too many true believers in dissenting religious sects who reject [pre-statehood LDS Church President] Wilford Woodruff's manifesto and [Church President] Joseph F. Smith's second manifesto," says Thomas Alexander, a retired Brigham Young University history professor.

Alexander cautions against concluding Jeffs' conviction will change modern polygamy. "It is the conviction of one man, who is also a polygamous religious leader, for actions that were clearly abusive."

Shurtleff believes the Jeffs case has put a stop to underage marriages in Colorado City and Hildale. If so, that's great. But there's also a good chance it's driven the brides and grooms even farther underground.

Knowing the deep religious underpinnings of this way of life, maybe it's time to stop the political crusade. Perhaps if we don't make them martyrs for their beliefs, the inexplicable appeal of the lifestyle will wane.

Of course, go after polygamists who engage in welfare fraud to feed and clothe their unwieldy broods. Absolutely, charge fathers and mothers and prophets with child abuse and as accomplices to rape. Apply traditional laws of property ownership to protect sect members who have been shunned. And help young men who are set adrift when they pose romantic competition to their elders.

But in the end, who cares if crowds of consenting adults want to believe they're married in the eyes of god? As long as they don't break the law, why should we nose into their bedrooms?