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Bill held after nearly three hours of testimony about polygamy

Bill held after nearly three hours of testimony about polygamy

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SALT LAKE CITY — After nearly three hours of often emotional testimony about polygamy, including from women who said they were forced into underage marriages, a House committee voted to hold a bill altering the definition of bigamy.

HB99, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, drew a standing room only audience that also included men and women who told members of the House Judiciary Committee they feared prosecution for practicing polygamy.

The committee chose to hold the bill after an amendment was proposed by Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, that would reduce the penalty for bigamy from a felony to a class A misdemeanor and make it a secondary offense.

Greene said he wanted to ensure the existing policy of not prosecuting bigamy as a "stand alone" offense would continue, warning the attorney general's office "can easily flip the switch back" if lawmakers don't take action.

"It's clear that this is a complex issue and I don't think the original bill did it justice," Greene said. "Wherever we go from here, I think we really need to make sure we’re not painting this whole community with a broad brush."

Noel opposed the amendment, saying he had made a commitment not to reduce the penalty. The committee agreed with Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, who asked that more work be done on the bill.

Snow said that they should be looking at prosecuting those who use "religious influence, especially with children," that causes abuse.

The bill, Noel said, was an effort to comply with recent court rulings by defining bigamy as both purporting to marry someone while already married and co-habiting with that person.

He said after the meeting he didn't know what would happen next.

Noel had asked the committee to take the dramatic step of swearing-in several witnesses, including LuAnn Cooper, a member of the Kingston family who had to quit school at 15 to marry her 23-year-old first cousin.

"I lived in a loveless marriage. He considered me an item rather than a person," she told the committee. "I am here today because I feel polygamy doesn’t get prosecuted. People are getting away with it."

Scott Howell, a former state senator, described how six women escaping a polygamous group turned up in his legislative office because they didn't want their daughters to have to submit sexually to the group's leader.

"It's time for the state to be honest and forthright about the existence of polygamy in Utah," Howell said, likening the forced marriages of young girls in such groups to a human sacrifice.

Some in the audience offered a different view of polygamy.

Veronica Baker, who brought her young daughter to the hearing, said she was raised in a loving polygamist family but had to call her father by his given name, because her mother was not his first wife and the family feared prosecution.

"We had to lie to everyone we knew because our father would be thrown in jail," she recalled. When her father was there, Baker said, "it was a happy thing. All of my moms were happy to have him home."

Others said that fear of prosecution would make it harder to help those who want to leave a polygamist group.

"I have no love for polygamy," said Shirlee Draper, a former FLDS member who now advocates for victims of the polygamous community. "To tell me I would have been a felon for practicing my religion, I would have gone underground." Email: Twitter: DNewsPolitics


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