Utah’s state Senate (pictured) voted unanimously to decriminalise polygamy last week. The bill, which passed the Republican-controlled Senate with a vote of 29-0, will now go before the Utah House of Representatives, where it is expected to meet significant resistance.
Around 30,000 people live in polygamist Mormon communities in Utah, which are not affiliated with the more well-known Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which excommunicates polygamous members. Utah’s membership in the Union was, famously, predicated on abandoning the practice.
The bill would reclassify bigamy as an administrative infraction, rather than a felony as it is today. Utah’s bigamy law was strengthened in 2017, but remains basically unenforced absent other crimes such as the ones that put Warren Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in prison in a high-profile 2011 case.
The head of one of the diocesan offices in Salt Lake City told Kevin Jones at the Catholic News Agency: “The diocese is not taking a position on this bill, but I will say that we find the sponsors’ statements that the bill could help individuals come out of the shadows of polygamy to be very credible.”
The bill’s chief sponsor is a Republican state senator, Deidre Henderson, who also spearheaded an effort to make the state’s constitution gender-neutral last year, and called the situation a “full-blown human rights crisis.”
Polygamists “are tired of being treated like second-class citizens,” Henderson said during the hearing. “They feel like Utah has legalised 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.”
The issue makes for odd bedfellows, a sort of (latter-day) saints-and-swingers coalition. While most of the people who would benefit from decriminalisation are the most obscure sort of religious fundamentalists, arguments in favour of decriminalisation are the sort of thing you’d hear from progressives: that it’s behaviour between consenting adults; that it has to do with harm reduction; it’s a civil rights battle, etc.
This tactic seems to have worked, because I can’t remember a time when Mormon fundamentalists were treated so kindly by NPR. One progressive Twitter user told me he was happy to see that the proposed bill was gender-neutral.
In an op-ed for the Salt Lake Tribune, Henderson explained her position: “The history of raids and family separations, combined with the blanket ban on an entire lifestyle, leads to the fear that an investigation might break up an entire family, removing the children and incarcerating the parents.” Henderson also invoked Martin Luther King Jr.
But the argument that decriminalisation is more likely to help abuse victims in these communities come forward seems unpersuasive. Cases are built on victims who come forward. If the leaders of those victims’ communities have instilled in them a fear of law enforcement, decriminalisation isn’t likely to change that. Warren Jeffs, or people like him, don’t want their flock going to the police for a host of reasons. The bigamy statute is likely pretty low on the list.
One might argue that this speaks to the wisdom of federal authorities who insisted on breaking up this kind of thing before making Utah a state.
Much of the coverage of the Utah bill mentions the TLC show Sister Wives, about a polygamous family who had to leave the state following law enforcement scrutiny after the show launched in 2010. The father, Kody Brown, has protested in favour of the bill.
According to an interview with Brown on a reality TV podcast, his wife Christine was working on a programme to educate the public about plural marriage around 2007, and said of teaming up with TLC: “To be honest with you, I think we found them.”
Now that this public relations effort has ripened, so to speak, the plan to change the laws is going into effect.
Critics of gay marriage who said the next issue would be polygamy were dismissed at the time as exaggeration-prone cranks. But, after last year’s media blitz of stories on polyamorous relationships, there is now a serious legislative effort to loosen restrictions on the practice.