The Utah state Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday effectively to decriminalize polygamy among consenting adults, reducing penalties for a practice with deep religious roots in the predominantly Mormon state.
The bill, which would treat the offense of plural marriage as a simple infraction on par with a parking ticket, now moves to the Utah House of Representatives, where it is likely to face greater resistance.
The bill swiftly cleared the Republican-controlled Senate on a vote of 29-0 with little discussion.
Under current law, polygamy – typically involving a man who cohabitates with and purports to marry more than one wife – is classified as a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
If the Senate bill becomes law, punishments for plural marriage would be limited to fines of up to $750 and community service.
However, fraudulent bigamy – in which an individual obtains licenses to marry more than one spouse without their knowledge, or seeks to wed someone underage without her consent – remains a felony.
The chief sponsor of the measure, Senator Deirdre Henderson, said the intent of the bill is not to legalize polygamy but to lower the penalties so those from polygamous communities who are victims of crimes can come forward without fear of being prosecuted themselves.
It also would make it easier for otherwise law-abiding polygamists to obtain access to critical services such as medical or mental health care, education or even employment without fear, she said.
Opponents of decriminalization say the current law should not be changed because polygamy is inherently dangerous and harmful to women and children, particularly young girls, some of whom have been forced into marriages with older men.
REMNANT OF PRE-STATEHOOD
Polygamy is a remnant of the early teachings of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members fled persecution over the practice to settle the Utah territory in 1847. The church disavowed polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah statehood, and today members of the faith found to be practicing plural marriage are excommunicated.
Fundamentalist Mormons, said to number more than 30,000 across the western United States, believe they are adhering to the truest form of Mormon doctrine, which promises polygamists glorification in heaven.
Utah’s history of felony punishment for polygamy has never halted its practice entirely but rather driven it to the fringes of society, creating a culture of fear that allows perpetrators to thrive, Henderson said.
“The solution to the problem is increased societal integration, which can only come through decriminalizing otherwise law-abiding polygamists,” Henderson said during a preliminary debate on the bill last week.
Critics, however, say the measure wrongly frames polygamy as a human rights issue.
“Proponents of this bill attempt to piggyback on the success of the gay rights movement by promoting the narrative that this initiative is about consenting adults doing what they will,” the anti-polygamy group Sound Choices Coalition said in a statement. “This has nothing to do about consenting adults or gay rights. It’s all about weaponizing God.”
In 2013, Kody Brown, patriarch of the polygamist family featured on the “Sister Wives” television reality show, challenged the law after being investigated for bigamy by Utah County prosecutors. No charges were filed.
A federal judge struck down the anti-polygamy law as unconstitutional. But a federal appeals court reversed the ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.