Polygamy has long been both illegal in the United States and officially denounced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Change looms, however, thanks to a law making its way through the Utah Senate. The Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously for the bill, and if the full Utah Senate feels the same, polygamy will be reduced from a felony to an infraction, which is akin to getting a traffic ticket.
An estimated 30,000 people live in polygamist communities – most practicing early traditions of the LDS Church despite the fact the practice was officially abandoned in 1890. After a controversial history of polygamy in Utah, the practice of even living with multiple “spiritual wives” was made a felony in 2017, punishable by up to five years in prison. If this measure succeeds, however, polygamists are looking at a possible fine of $750 and some community service.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Deidre Henderson (R), believes the act of reducing the lifestyle to a minor offense will make it easier for people living in abusive situations to speak out:
“The people that I have spoken with long to feel part of society. They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens. 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.”
Sister Wives and Child Brides
There have been a few recent and famous incidents that keep the outdated custom in the media. One involved Fundamentalist LDS leader Warren Jeffs, who married children and allowed other abuses. Not all cases are the same, of course. Consider Kody Brown and his three wives, who star in the television show Sister Wives: They’re all consenting adults.
Jeffs currently resides in a Texas prison, where he is serving out a life sentence plus 20 years for sexual assault. Kody Brown and his four wives moved to Nevada and petitioned for a hearing in front of the United States Supreme Court, citing First Amendment violations. The Court denied their request, but at least the Browns aren’t facing prosecution.
Angela Kelly, Director of the Sound Choices Coalition, is trying to stamp out the possibility of regression in the state’s stance. She argues the legislation would encourage polygamy. The organization describes the many side effects of the practice on its website: child brides, trafficking, incest, tax evasion, extortion (money for salvation), and suppression of basic human and equal rights. Ms. Kelly does not mince words in her quest to abolishing polygamy entirely.
“To bring it down to an infraction, you’re essentially saying this is an OK lifestyle. And it might be for 10 people, but we’re talking about society as a whole.”
Many legal scholars seem to agree, naturally skeptical that reducing the penalties for polygamy will have the desired outcome of encouraging more people in abusive situations to come forward. Casey Faucon, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama Law School, spoke with Fox News recently, saying, “It takes more than just changing a law to get people to come forward and report abusive situations.”
According to one former member of a polygamist sect, Ora Barlow, reducing the severity of punishment for perpetrators of the practice is reckless. “The law is there for a reason. And it’s for people like me who feel trapped.”
As the state Senate prepares to make a decision, all eyes are on Utah.
Read more from Sarah Cowgill.