After ‘Sister Wives’ ruling, a new push for the Utah legislature to decriminalize polygamy

Posted at 6:06 PM, Apr 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-15 00:12:19-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- In the years since a federal judge essentially "decriminalized" polygamy in Utah, Travis Kelsch said he has felt more free to be open about his marriages.

"There's always been that fear of the man -- the government -- to breathe down our necks for anything we do or say," Kelsch, who has two wives, said in an interview with FOX 13. "These last couple of years have been that, have been freedom."

On Monday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver overturned that ruling in the "Sister Wives" case, basically making polygamy a felony again. Reality TV polygamist Kody Brown and his wives, who sued the state over its historic ban on polygamy, are contemplating an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In response, some in Utah's polygamous communities have contemplated pushing for legislation to reduce the offense for bigamy among consenting adults.

"I would like to see it decriminalized," Kelsch said. "That's all I ask for. I don't want the state in my room, just like I don't want it in anybody else's room. I'd just like to be left alone concerning that."

The Brown family came under investigation by police when they began appearing on their cable TV show, "Sister Wives." They sued the state and a judge sided with them, making it no longer a crime to cohabitate with multiple people and purport to be married. The Utah Attorney General's Office appealed the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court.

To assist the state, a bill was run by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, earlier this year that would have "re-criminalized" polygamy. It faced push back from polygamists, who rallied at the Utah State Capitol and lobbied for its defeat. The bill died in the final minutes of the legislative session.

Rep. Earl Tanner, R-West Jordan, tried to amend that bill to make bigamy among consenting adults an infraction -- meaning it would only be a fine, with no threat of jail or prison time. That amendment was defeated in a floor vote.

Tanner told FOX 13 on Thursday he might consider running a bill to drop the level of offense for bigamy among consenting adults. He said polygamists may feel more free to report abuses to authorities, if they didn't fear prison time for themselves.

"We should focus on those abuses. At the legislature, we should make it easy for prosecutors to go after them," he said. "But we shouldn't be going after people for plain polygamy -- no incest, no raping of 14-year-old girls, no child labor issues with young men and throwing them out of the community, no welfare abuse."

The Utah Attorney General's Office has said it will not prosecute polygamy alone, but in concert with other crimes like fraud and abuse. The anti-polygamy group Sound Choices Coalition expressed concern about any decriminalization legislation.

"Sound Choices Coalition has long been an advocate of amnesty for polygamists who are not breaking other laws. However, this amnesty should be followed by legal action against new offenders," the group's director, Kristyn Decker, said in an email. "As an anti-social and unsustainable practice that fosters so many other associated abuses, polygamy should never be treated lightly."

Tanner acknowledged an uphill battle at the legislature, given the vote last session on his bigamy amendment.

"My willingness is there. The question is looking at the body. As a body, are people changing their mind?" he said.