Utah moves to decriminalize polygamy

Utah State Capitol. Photo: Gephardt Daily/Patrick Benedict

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Feb. 18 (UPI) — The Utah Senate has moved to approve a bill that would reclassify polygamy among consenting adults from a felony offense to an infraction.

The measure, which passed unanimously Friday, has one more Senate vote before it would head to the House of Representatives for consideration. If Senate Bill 102 is passed by the full Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, the maximum offense for polygamy (technically bigamy) would be a $750 fine and community service.

The bill — which applies to all defendants with more than one spouse and not just to those in the polygamous communities — would effectively decriminalize bigamy only for consenting adults who are otherwise obeying the law. Bigamy would remain a felony when it is accompanied by another crime, such as fraud or coercion.

Under current law, people are guilty of third-degree felony bigamy if they hold multiple marriage licenses or if, when already married, they live with another consenting adult in a marriage-like relationship and “purport” to be married.

Unlawful cohabitation was made a felony in Utah in 1935 as a way to eliminate polygamy. Many polygamists will obtain a marriage license only with their first wife and enter into a “spiritual marriage” with their other wives.

Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, the bill’s sponsor, asserted at a Feb. 10 hearing of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on the bill that current law “has utterly failed to stop polygamy.” Instead, many members of the polygamous community don’t report crimes or access social services because they fear their families will be broken up or they themselves will be labeled as criminals for being part of a plural marriage, the senator said.

“In short, Utah has a full-blown human rights crisis,” Henderson said.

Henderson also said her proposal would codify a written policy by the Utah Attorney General’s Office and the practice of other prosecutors’ office of not prosecuting polygamists who, except for their plural marriages, obey the law.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the committee voted unanimously to send the measure to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation.

Under the bill, bigamy would remain a third-degree felony, which carries a maximum prison sentence of five years, if a defendant induces it under fraudulent or false pretenses or by threat or coercion. Bigamy would be a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years behind bars if accompanied by another crime, including homicide, kidnapping, trafficking, sexual offenses, child abuse, child abandonment or exploitation of a vulnerable adult.

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The proposal has the support of prosecutors in Utah, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, which said in a tweet that it has advocated the decriminalization of plural marriage since 1991.

Jeff Buhman, executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, said at the Senate committee hearing that prosecutors’ offices throughout Utah are not bringing felony bigamy charges against consenting cohabitants under the current law.

Others who spoke at the hearing were split on the issue.

Tonia Tewell, executive director of Holding Out HELP, which assists those who leave the polygamist community, said her clients overwhelmingly tell her that decriminalization would not stop abuse but would embolden offenders.

Ora Barlow said when she left the polygamous community, she felt the law was her friend. Angela Kelly, director of Sound Choices Coalition, said she opposes the bill because by reducing the classification to an infraction, “you are essentially saying this is an OK lifestyle.”

“It might be for 10 people, but we’re talking about polygamy as a whole,” Kelly said.

Plural wife Alina Darger, who has been married for 30 years, supports the legislation and suggested targeting abuse and getting more help for victims.

Ken Driggs, a retired Atlanta criminal defense attorney and legal historian who has written extensively about polygamy, told UPI that early in the country’s history, the government was not involved in marriage. Rather, marriage was a matter between the individuals and their religious traditions, Driggs said, adding that he knows polygamists who do not get any marriage licenses.

Driggs believes Utah’s current polygamy law is “blatantly unconstitutional” and that consenting adults should be left alone.

“Adults have a right to make their own relationship decisions,” he said.

Polygamy has been debated in Utah since 1852, when members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began to openly practice it. The Salt Lake City-based church officially abandoned polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members who practice it.

Article III of the Utah Constitution guarantees “perfect toleration of religious sentiment” but also says “polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.”

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