Polygamists, Unite!

Marlyne Hammon knows what it's like to feel hated and hunted. In 1953, when she was an infant, her father--along with dozens of other men in her tiny community of Short Creek, Ariz.--was arrested and sent to jail on charges of polygamy. She, her mother and siblings were forcibly exiled from the community and sent to live with a family in a nearby city. Her father was released after a week, but because the family feared further prosecution, they lived apart and corresponded in secret for the next six years. "Our community had this idea that we should live our lives quietly to avoid trouble," she says. "We were taught not to make a big ruckus."

Not anymore. Hammon, who's involved in a polygamous relationship, is a founding member of the Centennial Park Action Committee, a group that lobbies for decriminalization of the practice. She's among a new wave of polygamy activists emerging in the wake of the gay-marriage movement--just as a federal lawsuit challenging anti-polygamy laws makes its way through the courts and a new show about polygamy debuts on HBO. "Polygamy rights is the next civil-rights battle," says Mark Henkel, who, as founder of the Christian evangelical polygamy organization TruthBearer.org, is at the forefront of the movement. His argument: if Heather can have two mommies, she should also be able to have two mommies and a daddy. Henkel and Hammon have been joined by other activist groups like Principle Voices, a Utah-based group run by wives from polygamous marriages. Activists point to Canada, where, in January, a report commissioned by the Justice Department recommended decriminalizing polygamy.

There's a sound legal argument for making the controversial practice legal, says Brian Barnard, the lawyer for a Utah couple, identified in court documents only as G. Lee Cooke and D. Cooke, who filed suit after being denied a marriage license for an additional wife. Though the case was struck down by a federal court last year, it's now being considered by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Barnard plans to use the same argument--that Lawrence v. Texas , the 2003 sodomy case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that individuals have "the full right to engage in private conduct without government intervention," should also apply to polygamous relationships.

Almost always, when the legalization of polygamy is brought up, it's used to make a case against gay marriage. Most notably, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania told the Associated Press in 2003 that legalizing gay sex would pave the way for legalized bigamy, polygamy and incest. This "slippery slope" argument angers some gay-rights activists who see the issues as being completely separate. "I frankly would not love to see an article [about polygamy advocacy] in NEWSWEEK because this is the connection that our opponents make, and we feel it's a specious one," says Carisa Cunningham, director of public affairs for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. Polygamy activists aren't thrilled with the association, either. Though they closely watch the gay-marriage battle, they are generally religious and conservative--and, like Henkel and Hammon, believe that homosexual behavior is a sin.

Polygamy is a lifestyle choice for a relative handful of Americans. Experts estimate that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 polygamists in the United States who practice a form of Mormonism, though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, most commonly associated with the term "Mormon," banned the practice in 1890. There's also a growing number of evangelical Christian and Muslim polygamists--some experts say they may even exceed the number who describe themselves as Mormon.

Polygamy rights, not surprisingly, get little support beyond those who are actually polygamists. A May 2005 Gallup poll found that 92 percent of Americans oppose the practice, which is illegal in all 50 states. But the tiny movement may get its biggest boost from an unexpected source: HBO. This week the network debuted a new drama, "Big Love," which offers a sympathetic look at a polygamous family. "We value this as our way of life," says Hammon. "We've got to have a voice in this." Polygamists are finally speaking up--but will anyone listen?