SALT LAKE CITY — Members of Utah's fundamentalist Mormon communities are hopeful about a bill that would make bigamy among consenting adults an infraction, while anti-polygamy activists say they will fight it.
Utah has prohibited polygamy since it became a state. But tens of thousands still practice it today, scattered across the state.
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, is sponsoring Senate Bill 102, which makes bigamy among consenting adults an infraction.
"Our law making it a felony to cohabitate essentially gives power to the bad guys and pretty much re-victimizes the vulnerable people," Sen. Henderson said in an interview with FOX 13.
Sen. Henderson's bill makes bigamy in concert with fraud, child bride marriages and other abuses a second-degree felony. But making it an infraction does put it on par with a traffic ticket. There is no threat of jail time, only a fine or community service.
"I didn’t feel like we could bring it all the way down to nothing," she said. "But it is an infraction and if there is any other abuse or domestic violence or any of those things that are currently in statute, then bigamy can be charged as a second degree felony with those other crimes."
In 2016, the Utah State Legislature "re-criminalized" bigamy in response to a legal challenge brought by reality TV star Kody Brown and his wives. They sued the state of Utah, alleging that its constitutional prohibition on polygamy violated their religious freedom rights, as well as their right to privacy. A federal judge agreed and struck down that part of Utah's ban, but the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver reversed it.
Sen. Henderson's bill walks it back. She argued that making bigamy an infraction for consenting adults could help free people to report problems and seek help without fear their entire life is prosecuted.
"We need to take another look at the effectiveness of our law and some of the harms that have come about as a result of our law," Sen. Henderson said.
The bill is already generating some initial support in the legislature. Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, whose district includes the polygamous border town of Hildale, said Wednesday he was supportive of the idea.
But Angela Kelly, the director of the Sound Choices Coalition, said she believed it will not help. She opposed the idea of making bigamy an infraction.
"It’s a bad bill because it doesn’t do what Sen. Henderson thinks it’s going to do," Kelly told FOX 13 on Wednesday. "She thinks it’s going to help more victims come forward and report associated crimes? And it’s not going to do that. It’s not going to help the victims in any way."
Kelly argued the bill does not take into account the impact to victims of crimes within isolated polygamous communities or the harms caused by polygamy itself. She said people were more afraid for their salvation, not for any legal consequence.
"If you decriminalize child abuse, would more children come forward? Because they’re afraid their parents are going to get in trouble? Probably not," she said.
Holding Out Help, which works with people leaving polygamous communities, said it did not support the bill. Tonia Tewell, the group's director, said she has never heard a client claim they were afraid to report a crime because polygamy was illegal.
"Our clientele has increased by 55%. Most of our clients are leaving because of abuse, fraud and control," she said in a text message. "How is this bill going to stop this criminal activity? It doesn't fit!"
The Principle Voices Coalition, which advocates for people in polygamous communities, praised the bill.
"Utah's tens of thousands of plural families have been marginalized for over a century. Utahns have embraced all lifestyles and cultures, and ours cannot be an exception," the group said in a statement. "The criminalization and isolation of a religious minority have harmed families. Truly, Utah has no appetite for prosecuting and imprisoning plural families for lifestyle choices as felonies. SB0102 corrects this problem. While all crimes should be prosecuted, we look for the day when whom we love is no longer a matter for law enforcement."
Joe Darger, a polygamist who, along with his three wives, have authored a book about their life, has pushed for the bill. He fought the recriminalization efforts in the legislature in 2016.
"For 100 years we’ve criminalized this. It hasn’t worked," he said in an interview Wednesday with FOX 13.
Darger said he wanted to see polygamy completely decriminalized, but expressed support for Sen. Henderson's bill.
"I don’t fear prosecution, but I know there’s thousands that do," he said. "There’s people that don’t get help. There’s people that have left the FLDS and don’t follow Warren Jeffs, but they’re afraid to say who they are. There’s many families that are innocent families, if there’s a problem where do they go? It’s illegal to say who you are."