Lifting the Veil on Polygamy

What do you think of when you hear the word polygamy?

Following the recent raid of a polygamous compound in Texas, you probably think of religious extremism, arranged marriages and young fundamentalist girls in prairie dresses. The truth is that lots of polygamy in America is nothing like that.

In Chicago, Yoannah and Shalemyah Ben-Israel run the Soul Vegetarian restaurant. These two women call themselves sisters, but they're not actual sisters. They are two of four wives married to a man named Prince Ben-Israel.

"It's been wonderful," Yoannah says of her marriage, "and I wouldn't take it any other way."

The Ben-Israel's willingness to appear on camera is unusual. Polygamists tend to keep their marital arrangements secret because they're breaking the law.

The only other family members we found who were willing to talk openly live in the Pacific Northwest. They are Cheryl, Nancy and Phil, who asked that their last names not be used. Phil and Nancy had already been married for almost 30 years when they decided to invite Cheryl to join the family.

"That's where the whole thing started, was a friendship between Nancy and I," Cheryl says. "It's gonna sound weird but Phil just kind of … came into the package of the friendship."

Polygamy Is Not Synonymous With Mormonism

People equate polygamy and Mormonism, but that's a myth. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy more than a century ago. Today, there are polygamists who call themselves fundamentalist Mormons, but the Ben-Israels are Jewish, and Phil, Cheryl and Nancy are evangelical Christian.

Insiders estimate that of the roughly 100,000 polygamists in the United States, only half are associated with the fundamentalist sects that broke from the Mormon church. Many polygamist families live their lives in everyday communities — they may even be your next-door neighbors.

"We just live quietly," polygamy advocate Mark Henkel said. "We conduct ourselves doing general business with everybody else … and just living quietly, you know, living our private life."

Henkel, founder of the pro-polygamy Web site TruthBearer.org, wouldn't disclose the details of his family situation to "20/20." He lives in Maine, where even purporting to have more than one wife is illegal. Henkel pointed out what he called the hypocrisy of such laws.

"Someone like a Hugh Hefner will have a successful television show with three live-in girlfriends," Henkel said. "And that's all OK. And he's making great money, and that's all fine and great entertainment. But, suddenly … if that man was to marry them, then suddenly he's a criminal. That's insane."

Polygamy's Bad Wrap in the Media

Polygamy is a felony crime in most states, and sometimes punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Most polygamists simply get married in religious ceremonies and keep quiet about it because even though these laws are rarely enforced, they are still on the books.

Recent media attention focused on the raid of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints compound in El Dorado, Texas. Months earlier, the leader of the religious sect, Warren Jeffs, was convicted of arranging a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

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