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Bill to recriminalize polygamy passes House committee

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Posted at 3:33 PM, Feb 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-20 23:45:32-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill that could effectively "re-criminalize" polygamy in Utah has passed a House committee.

By an 8-1 vote, the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee passed House Bill 281 over the objections of members of Utah's polygamous communities.

"There are those that would like to totally eliminate this," Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said Friday. "But the Utah Constitution provides we forever prohibit polygamy."

Noel's bill would make it a crime again to cohabitate with multiple people and "purport" to be married.The bill is being run in response to a federal judge's ruling in 2013 that struck down part of Utah's historic polygamy ban. (Ironically, the ruling came a week before another federal judge in Utah struck down the State's same-sex marriage ban.)

Utah was sued by reality TV polygamist Kody Brown and his four wives, who argued that the state's ban violates their First Amendment rights. Utah appealed and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could rule any day now on the case.

On Friday, Rep. Noel said polygamy is effectively not prosecuted in Utah. He offered an amendment to reduce the crime of bigamy from a felony to a class A misdemeanor.

"The prosecutors in this state and every county do not prosecute bigamy, or polygamy, unless there is child sexual abuse, fraud," he said.

Some polygamists testified against the bill, even though they agreed with his idea to drop the crime in severity. Brady Williams said the bill sent a message to plural families they needed to go back into hiding.

"I have none of the protections that would be offered to a married man and my ladies have none of the protections offered to a married woman. As far as the state is concerned, I'm single," said Stan Shepp.

Anne Wilde, a former plural wife, said she supported reducing the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor. But Heidi Foster said she had concerns with other aspects of the bill's language, including criminalizing "purporting" to be married to someone.

"I want my family to be recognized and protected just like yours is. I want my choice in a life partner to be respected just like yours is. I want to choose who I fall in love with, just like you did," she said. "I want to trust the laws of this great state to protect me and my children just like you do. I don't want to have a cloud of doubt and fear that is today the day I can purport and say this man is my husband? Or is today the day that purporting a simple declaration of love, makes me a criminal?"

Rep. Earl Tanner, R-West Jordan, offered to make polygamy an infraction under Utah law, meaning there would be no threat of jail time, but his amendment failed. The committee passed the bill on to the full House to consider.

Williams told FOX 13 they were not giving up.

"Judge Waddoups has spoken. It's unconstitutional to say I can't live and love and cohabitate with whomever I choose. So why are we revisiting this? Let's just leave it alone," he said.