November 28, 1983 12:00 PM

If Royston Potter has his way, he won’t have to keep pushing a broom for a living just because he has three wives sweeping up at home. Potter, 30, turned to janitorial work to support his wives and five children (with two on the way) after he was fired last year from his suburban Salt Lake City policeman’s job for polygamy. His situation may be the stuff of jokes for some and a cause of outrage for others, but for Potter it’s a very serious matter. He now is suing for reinstatement in his job, charging that the dismissal violated his right to privacy and that the Utah statute which prohibits plural marriage violates the federal constitution.

A Mormon who several months ago was excommunicated by the church, Potter says his fundamentalist reading of the Scriptures convinced him that a “celestial marriage” can be fulfilled only by taking multiple wives. He contends he’s just trying to model his life after the Old Testament’s Abraham, Jacob and David, all of whom had more than one spouse. Early Mormon-ism encouraged polygamy, but the church banned the practice in 1890 under pressure from the federal government. The antipolygamy provision in the state constitution was adopted before Utah was allowed to become a state in 1896.

Since filing his suit earlier this year, Potter, a conservative who doesn’t drink, smoke or swear, has become a spokesman for polygamists (there are believed to be about 1,800 multiple-marriage households in Utah and the Western states). Potter, in a quiet, earnest voice, explains, “I was placed in a position where I either had to speak out or bend completely to the machine working out there where it’s fine and dandy to commit adultery or fornication but where a polygamist is guilty of a third-degree felony.” (If Potter’s suit fails and he is prosecuted for polygamy, he could face a maximum of five years in prison.)

Meanwhile, Roy’s unusually extended family has drawn even closer together during the crisis. His wives, who call him “the patriarch,” have taken jobs—Denise, 30, as a waitress, Joanne, 31, as an inventory control specialist, and Mary, 26, as a secretary. All praise their family situation and the way they are raising their children.

Denise, mother of four of Roy’s children, married him in 1972 on the assumption it was just two for the road. Then, in 1980, Roy felt moved by the spirit to wed Joanne as well. “I was very well prepared for it by studying the Scriptures and the writings of [Mormon founder] Joseph Smith on polygamy, so it was a series of small shocks rather than a big one,” Denise claims. “But even though some inspiration from Heaven says this girl belongs in your family, I still have to get to know her.” To become better acquainted, Denise, Roy and Joanne went as a trio to church events, picnics and even on a Montana vacation before the wedding.

Roy married Mary last May. Originally the three women lived in separate residences, with Roy shuttling among them. Now, with money tight, Mary has moved into the three-bedroom main house with Denise, while Joanne lives in a nearby apartment. The house is sparsely furnished, the living room dominated by a picture of Jesus praying. The entire family gets together for Sunday dinners.

The wives refer to each other as “sister-wives” and claim they give each other spiritual, as well as domestic, support. “When I have a hurt in my heart or in my mind, I know my sister-wives will understand,” says Joanne.

They admit to squabbles over how to spend money and whose turn it is to watch the kids or do the dishes, but they never fight over Roy. “When I feel jealous of Denise or Mary—or of Roy—I’ll try to work it out with the person I’m jealous of. I’ll say I feel this way and that I know the other person can help me,” says Joanne, as her two sister-wives nod assent.

Potter is genuinely troubled that some may mistake his religious convictions for promiscuity. Although he spends a night with each wife on a rotating basis, he is horrified—as are the wives—by suggestions that they might all squeeze into the same bed or practice other forms of sexual arithmetic. “Oh, no, no, no! I don’t do that,” he says in shock. “It’s not godly,” says Joanne. “It was never taught in the Bible, and it’s punishable by God.” Adds Roy, “Our understanding is that God does not have just one kingdom, but several, and He visits each of those kingdoms in their times and seasons. And that’s how we looked at it with the wives; I visit them when it’s each one’s time and season.” The wives say it can be a relief to have a night off from Roy. As Joanne puts it, “It’s nice to have the bed all to yourself.” Roy, in turn, says he sometimes skips out on all three wives, heading for the hills to camp and read the Scriptures. “There are times when I just want to be out and all by myself,” he explains.

Will there be any more Mrs. Potters soon? Roy admits it’s a possibility, smiling. “I don’t know how many I can handle.”

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