An estimated 30,000 people who live in Utah’s polygamous communities could soon be free from criminal prosecution after members of the state Senate’s Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved a bill Monday to decriminalize polygamy between consenting adults.
The bill now moves to the full Senate chamber for a vote.
The sponsor of Senate Bill 102, Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, argued to colleagues that the state’s law classifying polygamy as a felony punishable by up to five years in prison is unenforceable absent other crimes.
"Vigorous enforcement of the law during the mid-20th century did not deter the practice of plural marriage," Henderson told NPR.
Instead of ending the practice, the law criminalizing polygamy has only created “a full-blown human rights crisis” in which victims of abuse and fraud are afraid to come forward, and otherwise law-abiding citizens in the community are labeled as criminals, she told Senate colleagues, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
“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.”
Senate Bill 102 would reduce polygamy among consenting adults from a felony to an infraction comparable to a traffic ticket.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially disavowed the principle of plural marriages in 1890, but acknowledged that the practice continued and was condoned for decades afterward. The church now excommunicates polygamists.
In 2014, Joseph Smith, the controversial figure who founded the religion, was revealed to have had as many as 40 wives, including married women and a 14-year-old girl.
An essay released by the LDS church highlighted the history of the controversial practice carried out by Smith and some of his close associates, and noted that many of its followers can trace their lineage to polygamous relationships.
Despite monogamy being the accepted form of relationship during the 1830s when the church was founded, Smith told associates that he was commanded by an angel to engage in the practice or suffer destruction.
"When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842, and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully," explained the essay.
"Branding all polygamists as felons has facilitated abuse, not eliminated polygamy," Henderson said as she urged lawmakers to decriminalize the practice.
She added that the bill increases penalties for bigamy in concert with abuse or other serious crimes, including fraud and child-bride marriages.
"We are basically codifying the long-standing practice of the Utah Attorney General's office: don't prosecute otherwise law-abiding polygamists unless other crimes are being committed," she said.
Amelia Anthony, a victims’ advocate who fled a plural marriage, argued in a statement through the anti-polygamy Sound Choices Coalition that keeping the practice as a crime is a helpful tool for victims.
“Yes, this bill is written to be tough on those who coerce and manipulate; yet at church and at home — every day of their lives, crimes of coercion and manipulation are being committed ... Little girls are consistently being groomed to become plural wives and bear more children than they can physically, emotionally and financially care for; while ‘boys will be boys,’ and may become leaders or end up being drones with no wives, or kicked out since most of the girls have been taken by older men...,” she asserted.
“With Utah’s record of not prosecuting crimes within polygamous households and businesses; how can you, me or anyone trust or believe that any of those remaining laws would be enforced either?” she asked.
“This bill condones and gives more power to abusers and fanatics who will take their new found ‘freedom’ to the extreme. They always have, and will even more. Once again, they will claim, ‘See, God has blessed and protected us. He is on our side! So you must do as we say ... or else!’” Anthony wrote. “Those of us who have lived on both sides of the fence, have been advocates and researchers for over 13 years, believe that passing this bill will NOT out-weigh the harms of polygamy; and will not be best for thousands of victims.”