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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

`Natural Family' Feud

The City Council of Kanab, Utah, resolved to promote the nuclear family unit. It ended up sowing discord in a once close-knit tourist town.

June 24, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

KANAB, Utah — This little town in the red-rock bluffs of southern Utah ought to be predictable.

Nearly 97% of the 3,500 residents are white. About 80% voted for President Bush in the last election. Many families trace their roots back five generations, to the Mormon pioneers who laid out the town in the 1870s with wide streets, a prudent irrigation system -- and, as a historical account noted, "not a grog shop or gambling saloon or dance hall" to be found.

Conservative values run so deep that one business owner said she's afraid to burn incense in her shop, lest she be dismissed as a New Age nut.

So members of the Kanab City Council hardly thought they were courting controversy when they passed a resolution proclaiming that their top priority was to protect and nurture the "natural family."

The resolution described the natural family as man and woman, duly married "as ordained of God," with hearts "open to a full quiver of children." The council decreed that such households are to be treasured as "the locus of the true common good," a bulwark against crime, delinquency, drug abuse and worse.

With rousing (if not always grammatical) rhetoric, the council promised to do all it could to promote the natural family: "We envision young women growing into wives, homemakers, and mothers; and we see young men growing into husbands, home-builders, and fathers.... We look to a landscape of family homes, lawns, and gardens busy with useful tasks and ringing with the laughter of many children."

The resolution passed unanimously in January.

"My gut reaction was, maybe it's a little chauvinistic," said Councilwoman Carol Sullivan, a retired teacher. But her four male colleagues backed the resolution, and no one came to the council meeting to argue against it, so she ignored her reservations.

"I thought, maybe it's just me," Sullivan said.

It wasn't.

The fallout divides Kanab to this day.

It started at the next council meeting, when dozens of indignant residents, some wearing buttons declaring "Quiverless," called the resolution offensive. The opinion page of the local paper -- usually filled with letters thanking neighbors for casseroles and kindness -- sizzled with outrage:

"The embarrassment this has brought to many of the locals here is unforgivable."

"The next step here is the city government going around and painting a red X on the non-natural family door."

And: "God bless us every one.... We certainly need it."

Matt Livingston, a 17-year-old intern at the Southern Utah News, wrote a column that chided Mayor Kim Lawson for intolerance: "I would expect a more Christlike countenance on your part." The mayor responded by writing to the school superintendent and the teen's church leader, suggesting that they ought to bring the young man in line.

"Aren't you stooping a bit low, mayor?" Editor Dixie Brunner taunted in an editorial.

Business owners struggled to avoid offending customers with their stance. Insurance agent Colt Henderson, 26, told his clients they weren't "any less of a person" if they didn't belong to a natural family. "But there's nothing wrong with saying that's the ideal," he said. His support for the resolution brought in at least one new account.

As word of the resolution spread, the Southern Utah News began running letters from out-of-towners who pledged to visit Kanab to honor the council's courage.

"Finally, a ray of hope for the family unit! Two thumbs up for Kanab," a man from Provo wrote, adding that he planned to cancel his tickets to Disneyland and take his family to southern Utah instead.

But others vowed to boycott the town; syndicated travel columnist Arthur Frommer urged tourists to stay away. At the Shilo Inn, manager Tammie Leslie faxed several canceled reservations to the mayor. The biggest blow came when a classic car club scrapped a convention here, costing the hotel $14,000.

Just when it looked like the anger was subsiding, a conservative talk-radio host in nearby Cedar City stirred the pot this month by organizing a showcase of local talent that he dubbed the "Celebration of the Family" -- the natural family. (Turnout at the performance was sparse.)

The same week, Kanab conservatives started their own newspaper to counter Brunner's weekly, which is viewed in certain circles as a liberal rag, and a saucy one at that. (Brunner said she exercised restraint: She printed nearly 300 letters -- but not the one claiming "the mayor has excrement for brains.")

Amid all the shouting, some residents have found themselves quietly thinking through their core values about faith, family and the public good.

For Sullivan, 65, the doubts began almost as soon as she came home from the council vote. She and her husband had been unable to have children. Did that make her less of a citizen?

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