Utah Senate committee unanimously approves bill to decriminalize polygamy

BY MORGAN GSTALTER - 02/12/20 12:46 PM EST 673

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A bill that would effectively decriminalize polygamy among consenting adults in Utah was unanimously endorsed by a state Senate committee this week, sending the legislation to the full chamber for a vote,

The Salt Lake City Tribune reported.

The Utah Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee pushed the bill through after hearing testimony from those who said current state law labels law-abiding citizens as criminals.

The bill’s sponsor, Utah Sen. Deidre Henderson (R), said laws on the books make victims of abuse or fraud within polygamist families feel scared to come forward for fear that they would arrested.

“The people that I have spoken with long to feel part of society,” Henderson said. “They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens. They feel like Utah has legalized prejudice against them. They want to be honest people, but feel like they have to lie or teach their children to lie about their families in order to stay safe.”

Current state law makes polygamy a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, with an additional 15 years possible if the defendant is also convicted of fraud, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic abuse or human smuggling or trafficking.

Henderson’s law would make polygamy between consenting adults an infraction — a level below many traffic offenses that carries no jail time, the Tribune reported.

Those convicted could face fines up to $750, and community service and sentencing enhancements for those with additional charges would remain intact.

Opponents of Henderson’s bill, such as Director of the Sound Choices Coalition Angela Kelly, argued the legislation would encourage people to live polygamist lifestyles, which she compared to organized crime and slavery, according to the Tribune.

“To bring it down to an infraction, you’re essentially saying this is an OK lifestyle,” Kelly said. “And it might be for 10 people, but we’re talking about society as a whole.”

Ora Barlow, who was raised in a polygamous community, said she has been thought of as property her entire life until the leaders of her church were prosecuted.

"The law is there for a reason,” Barlow said. “And it’s for people like me who feel trapped.”

There are an estimated 30,000 people living in Utah’s polygamous communities, following early traditions from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The practice was officially forbidden by the church in 1890 after pressure from the federal government, according to The Associated Press.

Henderson argued that current law has created a culture that empowers abusers, such as Warren Jeffs, the infamous leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a denomination known for practicing plural marriage and dressing in historic clothing.

Jeffs is currently serving a life prison in Texas after he was convicted in 2011 for sexually assaulting girls he considered plural wives.

The modern practice of polygamy has been chronicled in the TLC show “Sister Wives.”

In 2017, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from star Kody Brown and his four wives — one of whom he’s legally married to and the other three he’s “spiritually married” to and refers to as his “sister wives” — challenging current Utah law.

The Browns moved to Nevada in January 2011 over fear of persecution and argued that Utah’s laws violated their right to free speech and religion.

The family belongs to the Apostolic United Brethren Church, which views polygamy as “a core religious practice,” according to court documents.