Utah Government Poised To Decriminalize Polygamy

Feb 27, 2020
Originally published on February 27, 2020 7:14 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we will head to Utah now, where they are poised to effectively decriminalize polygamy between consenting adults. A bill greatly reducing penalties for polygamy is close to passing the state legislature, and the governor has signaled his support.

As Sonja Hutson from member station KUER in Salt Lake City reports, the state has a long and complicated history with the practice.

SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: The bill knocks the charge for consensual polygamy down from a felony to an infraction, essentially the same as a traffic ticket. But when polygamy is linked to charges such as child abuse or kidnapping, it would become a second-degree felony. The bill's sponsor, Republican senator Deidre Henderson, says prosecutors tell her the current law is difficult to enforce and rarely is. She also says it deters abuse victims from going to the police.

DEIDRE HENDERSON: When we create a situation where there's a lot of isolation and marginalization and these isolated, insular communities, that's where a lot of the problems can really escalate.

HUTSON: Polygamy used to be legal before Utah became a state in the 1890s and was openly practiced by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says Lindsay Hansen Park with the Sunstone Education Foundation, which researches fundamentalist Mormonism.

LINDSAY HANSEN PARK: As the practice got more notoriety, the federal government criminalized it, so Mormons had to make a lot of compromises. And in 1890, they officially abandoned the practice. A lot of people don't realize that the statehood of Utah was dependent on Mormons abandoning the practice of polygamy.

HUTSON: Although the state criminalized it and the church started excommunicated people who practiced it, an estimated 40,000 Utahns lived in polygamous families in 1998. Hansen Park says many of those polygamous communities are not abusive, but some are. And leaders use the current law to scare members from reporting abuse.

HANSEN PARK: They're taught from an early age that if they come forward and they get help that they're putting their - not just their entire family in jeopardy, but their entire community in jeopardy. And so a lot of people don't get help. They don't trust outsiders. They don't trust the government.

HUTSON: But some former members say the current law helped them escape abusive communities, like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The leader of that sect is a convicted sex offender and currently serving a life sentence in Texas. Henderson's bill has passed the state Senate and House with overwhelming support and heads back to the Senate for final legislative approval. The governor has signaled that he'll sign the bill.

For NPR News, I'm Sonja Hutson in Salt Lake City.

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