Modern Polygamy: Arizona Mormon Fundamentalists Seek to Shed Stereotypes

PHOTO: Michael Cawley with some of his wives and many of his children pray on a recent Sunday evening.
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Nineteen-year-old Rose Marie Cawley has been praying a lot recently. She's been praying for inspiration from God, that he will reveal to her the name of the man she will marry.

"I could marry someone single or I could marry someone very married with three wives or 10 wives," she said. "You just have to keep your mind open."

Cawley will keep praying until inspiration strikes, just like her mother, and two other mothers before her, because in this Centennial Park, Ariz., polygamist community, God reveals to the women who they will marry.

"This is my choice," Cawley said. "I chose to basically give myself over to the heavenly father to place me with whoever he chooses."

Centennial Park, Ariz., is a remote town just over the Utah border and it is home to 1,500 fundamentalist Mormons. They still believe that plural marriage, one of the religious teachings of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, was ordained by God and that a man receives a higher form of Salvation when he has several wives.

The vast majority of Mormons belong to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which renounced polygamy in the late 1800s, but several groups splintered from the Church over religious differences – most commonly, over the ability to engage in plural marriage.

The Cawleys, one of the families in Centennial Park, is made up of a husband, three wives and 18 children, all crammed under one ever-expanding roof -- the family has outgrown their house and is renovating shipping containers in the backyard for additional bedrooms.

Michael Cawley, the head of this plural household, says he expects his family to keep growing.

"One of the interesting things about our lifestyle is we believe that our Father in heaven blesses us and those blessings entail the children who come into the family," he said. "I may have another lady that comes into the family...I'm pretty sure I'll have more children that come into the family and so as the husband and the provider, then a lot of what I do is prepare for that."

The polygamist lifestyle is illegal in all 50 states, but residents of Centennial Park say they allowed our cameras into their home because they want to show just how average and normal their lives are. The Cawleys will also appear on TV's "Polygamy USA," which airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.

"We would like to start having the debate nationally about the decriminalization of polygamy," Michael Cawley said. "If I had my choices, I would like to see it done right now. I don't see there is any reason for this lifestyle to be a crime. It's a religion. Not a crime."

Cawley's first and second wives said they agree with their husband's viewers.

"This is where I choose to be. ... I truly am happy with this lifestyle. I truly would be unhappy in something different, I truly would," Rose said. "Living in a monogamous lifestyle simply would not be full enough for me."

"This is our version of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," added Connie Cawley, Michael's second wife. "And really if everyone else is entitled to that, so are we."

At Centennial Park, a woman is not forced into marriage, which is different from the more infamous, well-publicized group of polygamists just down the road. Three miles north is Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints followers, or FLDS, the group led by self-described prophet Warren Jeffs. Jeffs, who married more than 80 women, is currently serving a life sentence in prison after being convicted of two counts of sexual assault against two underage girls.

While more tolerant than the FLDS, the Centennial Park polygamist community is not quite as laid back as the polygamy family featured on TLC's "Sister Wives" either. Women in Centennial Park get the inspiration for who they will marry, but then they can't say no to an additional wife if one gets an inspiration to join their family.

"They way I came in was that I believed that I belonged to Michael and I can't say that there is nobody else who belongs to you," Rose said. "That's between Michael and God."

There is no dating allowed. Women have to be at least 18 years old to marry, and God can tell them to marry just about anyone in town, even if they were many years older.

If his daughter gets the inspiration to marry someone who is 70 years old, Michael Cawley doesn't disagree with that decision.

"If that is what the answer is that comes from out Father in Heaven through inspiration to our elders and to her and to me and her mother, great," he said.

If Rose Marie marries into a home where she is the fifth or sixth wife, Cawley said that is also fine with him.

Future husbands can be revealed anywhere and at any time. For Connie Cawley, inspiration came when she was in the sixth grade. Once her science teacher, Michael is now her husband.

There are other polygamy families in Centennial Park. Arthur Hammon, one of the town elders and a husband to three wives with more than 20 children overseas a small army of young men who alearning the teachings to be good polygamist husbands.

Memories of the 1953 Short Creek raid, when the authorities arrested members of a polygamist community and removed the children from their homes, remain strong here. When asked if he were afraid of the police coming and shutting down his town, Hammon said "afraid" is the wrong term.

"If I let fear rule me, I would not do what I have done," he said. "It's a concern, they could do that."

Nevertheless, the polygamist community said they are tired of living in secret and want to demonstrate plural marriage as the way they say it should be seen. Hammon said that the stereotype that women in polygamist marriages have no rights, no freedom to leave the community and are only there to have babies is false, as far as he is concerned.

"I can tell you that my door swings both ways," he said. "If they come in, they can go out. I know of no greater freedom for a woman than living in a responsible, caring polygamist home."

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