By Kevin J. Jones
The Utah Senate will consider a bill that would partially decriminalize polygamy after a state senate committee passed it unanimously, drawing strong views on both sides.
“The diocese is not taking a position on this bill, but I will say that we find the sponsors’ statements that the bill could help individuals come out of the shadows of polygamy to be very credible,” Jean Hill, director of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, told CNA Feb. 13.
However, Ora Barlow, who grew up in a polygamous community, opposed changes in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Salt Lake City Tribune reports.
“The law is there for a reason,” she said. “And it’s for people like me who feel trapped.”
Barlow said she felt free when her church’s leaders were imprisoned and prosecuted. That action made her realize that she had been treated like property all her life.
Nicole Van Tassell-Henderson, a former member of a plural marriage, said lightening the legal penalties for polygamists will give “power and control” to community leaders, the Salt Lake City television affiliate Fox 13 reports.
Utah law presently punishes polygamy as a felony with a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Senate Bill 102 would treat polygamy among consenting adults as an infraction penalized less severely than many traffic offenses. Those cited for polygamy could be punished by fines of up to $750 and community service if the bill becomes law.
Polygamy could still be punished if the defendant is also convicted of fraud, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, human smuggling, or human trafficking. In these situations, polygamy is penalized by up to 15 years in prison.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons, is the predominant religion in Utah. Its leaders supported the practice of polygamy in the 19th century, but ordered an end to plural marriages in the late 1800s, under heavy pressure from the federal government.
Some breakaway groups still continue the practice of plural marriage. An estimated 30,000 people live in polygamous communities in the state.
“The polygamous community is small, and very insular, with a few notable exceptions,” Hill told CNA. “The Catholic Church does not have many dealings with these communities and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not affiliated with the polygamous groups.”
“Catholic teaching does not recognize polygamy as a valid relationship,” Hill said, citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism teaches that “conjugal love between husband and wife is part of God’s plan for humanity.” It is a “a lifelong communion of a man and woman” that is a blessing to the couple, the Church and the world when it is “faithful, exclusive, and open to life.”
Sen. Deidre Henderson, a Republican sponsor of the Utah bill, told National Public Radio that strict enforcement of the anti-polygamy law in the mid-20th century did not deter plural marriage. She said polygamous families have been driven underground “into a shadow society where the vulnerable make easy prey.”
Henderson argued that the current law is unenforceable if there are no other crimes. She said the law has created a “full-blown human rights crisis” that makes victims of abuse and fraud afraid to come forward and which criminalizes citizens who otherwise follow the law, the Salt Lake City Tribune reports.
She also argued that the bill codifies current practice of the Utah Attorney General to prosecute only when other serious crimes are being committed.
Henderson said people in polygamous communities “long to feel part of society.”
“They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens,” she said. “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.”
Shirlee Draper, who grew up in a polygamous family in Colorado City, Arizona, told the Senate committee she was taught never to speak to law enforcement. Her father and other adults would warn children of raids on polygamous communities, which encouraged fear of outsiders as “kidnappers.”
Draper, a victim advocate who backs decriminalization, said abuse and violence cases come from a variety of family and religious backgrounds. She suggested that nobody argues that “it’s the family structure that causes those abuses.”
She said polygamous families are wrongly assumed to be committing illicit acts.
Other backers of the bill include the ACLU of Utah and the Statewide Association of Prosecutors.
Easton Harvey, speaking to the Senate committee on behalf of the polygamy critics Sound Choices Coalition, said members of these communities are afraid to report abuse because they fear ostracism from their community or divine punishment.
Angela Kelly, director of the Sound Choices Coalition, said polygamy is comparable to organized crime and slavery. Reducing criminal penalties would encourage more polygamous households and send the message that it is “an okay lifestyle.”
The coalition denies that polygamy is a choice, National Public Radio reports. It accuses fundamentalist Mormons of using their scriptures “to justify crimes and deviant behaviors” and “to subvert and oppress their wives and their numerous offspring who have been indoctrinated from birth into believing that a loving God commanded such suffering and disparity.”
The Sound Choices Coalition says that in polygamous practice, young men are pushed out of polygamous communities so that older men may monopolize young women as wives. It contends the practice is linked to child brides, incest, and the extortion of money in exchange for the promise of religious salvation.
Republican Sen. Dan Thatcher, the only member of the Senate committee who did not sponsor the bill, said he was not interested in hearing about the badness of polygamy because it would not cause him to vote against the bill.
“This is better than what we are doing now, and I have not heard a single person bring forward a better solution,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the prohibition on polygamy.
In 2019 the American Psychological Association launched a special task force to counter what it said was the “stigmatization” of people who practice consensual polygamy.
In 2017 a Gallup poll found 17% of Americans find polygamy to be morally permissible. Support had particularly increased among non-religious Americans. The change in opinion followed the 2010 launch of the reality show “Sister Wives,” which presents a sympathetic portrayal of a polygamous family. Pollsters also attributed the shift of the popular concept of polygamy from patriarchal and masculine centered family to a gender-neutral definition.
Kody Brown and his four wives, featured on the television show “Sister Wives”, had challenged a polygamy ban.
A lower court initially said the law violated their right to privacy and religious freedom. In April 2016, an appellate court ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the law because they were not charged under it.
When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 struck down anti-sodomy laws that criminalized same-sex sexual relations, critics warned that it set the stage for recognition of same-sex unions as marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court then mandated the nationwide legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2015.