A piece of legislation that would, in effect, totally decriminalize polygamy among consenting adults was unanimously approved by a Utah Senate committee this week, sending the bill to the full chamber for a vote.
The bill, S.B. 102, was advanced by the state Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee after hearing testimony from those who say the current anti-polygamy law labels otherwise law-abiding citizens as criminals.
Defending the legislation, state Sen. Deidre Henderson (R), who sponsored the bill, said the law, as it is currently written, makes victims of abuse or fraud within polygamist families fearful of coming forward over threat of being arrested.
“They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens,” said Henderson. “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.”
In an op-ed for the Salt Lake City Tribune, Henderson argued such laws have “created a shadow society in which the vulnerable make easy prey,” referring to polygamists who use the letter of the law, which criminalizes the polygamist lifestyle, to manipulate and abuse women.
It is in these reclusive environments that abuse happens with impunity. Fear and isolation breed secrecy, like a petri dish in which dark and ugly things grow. The fear isn’t theoretical. Polygamists not long ago experienced their homes being raided, men and women being imprisoned and hundreds of children being forcibly removed by the government.
Henderson went on to argue it was the law banning polygamy that enabled and empowered the abuse of the infamous cult leader Warren Jeffs, who is currently serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting numerous girls he considered his “plural wives.”
The law currently on the books deems polygamy a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. An additional 15 years is possible if the defendant is also found guilty of fraud, child abuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and/or human trafficking.
If approved by the full state Senate, Henderson’s bill would reduce the crime of polygamy to a simple infraction less serious than numerous traffic violations. There would be no jail time for those convicted of polygamy. Instead, they would be subject to a maximum fine of $750 and face potential community service enhancements.
Conservative commentator Sohrab Ahmari, an editor for the New York Post and a columnist at First Things, suggested in a tweet Friday afternoon that the legal redefining of marriage in 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the institution should be extended to homosexual couples, sent the definition of marriage sliding down a slippery slope.
Since the U.S. no longer legally considers marriage to be a union between one man and one woman, he wrote, “why shouldn’t we grant legal recognition to various poly configurations?”
Ahmari is not alone in his concern.
Easton Harvey of the Sound Choices Coalition, an anti-polygamy advocacy group, pushed back against Henderson’s (seemingly inaccurate) suggestion that it is the law itself that’s the reason polygamists get away with abusing and manipulating women.
“The primary reason [people trapped in polygamy] do not report crimes is because of a weaponized God,” Harvey said, “because of weaponized Scripture, because they’re trying to protect their priesthood.”
Like Harvey explained to the Tribune, it seems likely if the law wasn’t there, polygamists would just find different ways to manipulate women. The law here is not the problem. The problem is the people (mostly men) who are breaking the law.
Sound Choices Coalition Director Angela Kelly likened polygamy to slavery.
“To bring it down to an infraction, you’re essentially saying this is an OK lifestyle,” she said. “And it might be for 10 people, but we’re talking about society as a whole.”
Kelly’s also in good company. Famed abolitionist Harriett Beecher Stowe also compared polygamy to slavery:
Our day has seen a glorious breaking of fetters. The slave-pens of the South have become a nightmare of the past; the auction-block and whipping-post have given place to the church and school-house; and the songs of emancipated millions are heard through our land.
Shall we not then hope that the hour is come to loose the bonds of a cruel slavery whose chains have cut into the very hearts of thousands of our sisters — a slavery which debases and degrades womanhood, motherhood, and the family?
Let every happy wife and mother give her sympathy, prayers, and efforts to free her sisters from this degrading bondage. There is a power in combined enlightened sentiment and sympathy before which every form of injustice and cruelty must finally go down.
May He who came to break every yoke hasten this deliverance.
In 2017, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by TLC’s “Sister Wives” star Kody Brown, whose polygamist lifestyle is reality TV fodder. Brown alleged the state’s laws against polygamy violate his right to free speech and religion.
Brown and his four “wives” — only one of whom he is legally wedded to — moved to Nevada in 2011, fearing persecution for their illegal lifestyle.