SALT LAKE CITY — Critics of a bill to decriminalize polygamy told state senators Monday the measure would only embolden abusive members of plural marriage groups and would do nothing to help victims.
But members of polygamist groups said they favored the measure and said it would allow them to begin living without fear of being prosecuted.
After a public hearing, the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee voted 6-0 in favor of Senate Bill 102, sending it on to the Senate for further consideration.
The bill reclassifies bigamy as an infraction. Under current law, bigamy is a third-degree felony, which means if it were enforced, thousands of adults could be prosecuted and imprisoned, the bill sponsor said.
But under the bill, if bigamy is committed in conjunction with crimes such as sex offenses, human trafficking and public assistance fraud, it could be prosecuted as a second-degree felony.
Prosecutors spoke in favor of the bill, saying it would allow meaningful prosecutions of people in bigamous relationships if they are committing other crimes.
“Utah has uniquely harsh bigamy laws and a history of government persecution against polygamists,” said the bill sponsor, Sen. Deidre Henderson, a Republican of Utah County.
“The result is an environment of isolation and secrecy in which crime often goes unreported and perpetrators weaponize the law to instill fear of the ‘outside world’ among their followers,” she said in an email before the hearing. “This fear-driven secrecy also creates a barrier to social integration, education and healthcare.”
Melissa Ellis, of Ogden, an activist to the Sounds Choice Coalition, said in an interview before the hearing that the bill does nothing to help victims of abusive polygamist relationships.
She fled a polygamist group with her children in 2012.
“What kept me there wasn’t the law.” she said. “We were taught we were above the law. What kept me there is that they told me it meant my salvation. If they change this it will only empower abusers more.”
Several speakers similarly complained that while the measure would remove the threat of felony prosecution for otherwise law-abiding polygamists, it ignores the plight of thousands of abused women and children trapped in abusive situations or those who have fled and are trying to survive on the outside with little support.
Angela Kelly, director of the Sound Choices Coalition, earlier Monday offered this statement against the bill:
The “failure to understand the research on the abuses built into polygamy, such as the growing institutional grooming of minors into its ... sex trafficking trade, has led to a bill that, if passed, will create more victims,” it said.
Henderson, though, contended the bill will increase punishment of offenders and thereby help victims.
“The bill also makes it a third-degree felony to threaten or coerce someone into a bigamous relationship,” she said. “The goal is to lessen the fear and secrecy so that as children grow up integrated into society they will have better access to education, which of course leads to a better understanding of their opportunities in life. Children in closed societies are often barred from choice. Easing up on criminal penalties for otherwise law-abiding polygamists will lessen the need for secrecy and isolation.”
S.B. 102 is also supported by the Libertas Institute, which works on various libertarian-leaning issues at the Capitol.