In an era when the traditional definition of marriage is being challenged by gays and lesbians, another minority group is calling for changes in marital laws: polygamists.
Joe Darger and his three wives, Alina, Vicki, and Valerie, said they are willing to risk persecution and prosecution by speaking up for what they see as a First Amendment freedom of religion issue.
The husband and wives, who live with 24 children in a 5,500-square-foot home near Salt Lake City, are Independent Fundamentalist Mormons who practice plural marriage as the early Morman Church taught before it banned polygamy more than a century ago.
The Dargers spoke to religion journalists at a conference last month in Durham, N.C., and Mr. Darger was interviewed last week by The Blade.
The family decided to tell their story in a book, Love Times Three, published by HarperOne, with the goal of creating better understanding of their family structure and their religious beliefs.
They also hope their story will lead to changes in the law. Living in a plural marriage is a third-degree felony in Utah, although the law is rarely enforced and polygamists live in an “uneasy truce” with authorities, Valerie Darger said.
“At any time, should they choose to, they could come out and prosecute us,” Valerie Darger said. “Coming out is a risk we weighed, but there will be no change unless we do step forward.”
The Dargers say they live with the fear of being arrested and are constantly worried about others finding out about their family structure. They also hope their children will have the legal right to live in a plural marriage if they choose to do so.
“The book is a love story, but it’s more than that,” Alina Darger said. “It is about our faith. We want to define what our faith means to us and we feel the book is a dignified way to talk about our civil rights and the ability to live our faith and structure our family as we believe we should.”
They are also looking to dispel stereotypes about plural marriages and their branch of Independent Fundamentalist Mormons, of which there are an estimated 15,000 in the United States, the Dargers said. The branch of Mormons do not belong to any church and do not follow any leader.
Ironically, the Dargers acknowledge some responsibility for cultural stereotypes because they were the real-life inspiration for the HBO drama Big Love. The hit series, which ended a five-year run in March, was a fictional account of a fundamentalist Morman family the Hendricksons, which creators Mark V. Olson and Will Scheffer said were inspired by the Dargers.
“We’re not the Hendricksons. We’re the Dargers,” Mr. Darger said. “Big Love is a soap opera. I don’t have a hitman in a Hummer coming after me. From that standpoint, what we felt we needed to do was to tell our story.”
The Dargers also say that Sister Wives, a reality show about a polygamist family shown on the TLC channel, gives only a superficial look at their family structure and beliefs.
“As a reality show they’re not going to delve into the whys and hows,” Mr. Darger said.
All four of the Darger adults grew up in polygamist families with multiple mothers and scores of siblings. Joe dated Alina and Vicki at the same time, and married Val in a legal ceremony with Alina as his spiritual bride. Valerie, who is Vicki’s twin sister, joined them 10 years later after her first marriage fell apart.
Mr. Darger said jealousy can be a problem in a plural marriage, saying it requires self-sacrifice and self-realization.
“There’s a certain amount of respect. We take turns. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, every three days, Alina and Vicki and Val, in that rotation,” Mr. Darger said.
If one wife is sick or someone is out of town, the schedule can get complicated. “It can be a little confusing just to miss one night,” he said.
The Dargers said Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, taught that plural marriage was a higher calling, and point out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not ban polygamy until 1890 when it issued the Woodruff Manifesto, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring polygamy “contrary to the spirit of Christianity.”
Mr. Darger, 42, owns several businesses and works as a construction management consultant, but has tried to keep his polygamy a secret for fear that customers will shun him.
He said the timing is right to speak up now for a number of reasons.
“We’re willing to break the law because there’s a moral law that’s greater than us. It’s part of our faith,” he said. “We’re not asking for legal recognition. We’re really asking for a more libertarian view — keep out of our business. The government should be where the government belongs, and it’s not in the bedroom.”
“I think it’s the context of where this nation is in talking about other aspects of society, whether it’s gay marriage or that we have a black President,” he said. “We have so many other family arrangements. The idea of a nuclear family like Ozzie and Harriet, it’s not the most common family anymore. When you can have a hit series like Modern Family on ABC, for example. In that context, you certainly have to say that the environment makes us safer than a generation ago or even 10 years ago when the risk of persecution and prosecution was greater than it is even today.”
Mr. Darger also wanted to make it clear that Independent Fundamentalist Mormons have nothing but disdain for the offshoot Mormon sect led by Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison in August after being convicted of sexually assaulting underage followers he took as spiritual brides.
“It is repulsive, that is exactly what it is,” Mr. Darger said of Jeffs’ crimes. “What even makes it worse for us is it takes my beliefs and my religion and in the name of religion commits the most horrible acts upon women and children.… It is the ultimate hypocrisy and he has done so much damage to our way of life and our freedom.”