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Bigamy bill gains House committee approval

Bigamy bill gains House committee approval


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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill held last week after hours of testimony about polygamy was advanced Tuesday by the House Judiciary Committee after the penalty for bigamy along with child abuse, fraud and other crimes was enhanced.

HB99, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, had focused only on defining bigamy as both purporting to marry someone while already married and co-habiting with that person in an effort to comply with recent court rulings.

But the committee chose not to take action on that bill last week after hearing often emotional stories about both abuses associated with polygamy and the fear otherwise law-abiding people practicing polygamy have of being prosecuted.

Noel came back with a bill that left bigamy a 3rd degree felony but increased the penalty for bigamy to a 2nd degree felony when there are other crimes. He also added a "safe harbor" defense for those leaving polygamist relationships.

Questions were raised, however, about the impact of bigamy as a standalone offense continuing to be a felony. Several attempts by committee members to change that to a misdemeanor failed.

What was added to the bill by the committee was a provision spelling out that taking "steps to protect the safety and welfare" of children in a polygamist relationship could be used as a defense.

Noel, who has attempted to pass similar legislation in past sessions, said making bigamy a misdemeanor would be "a slap on the wrist" and called his bill an attempt to "make some progress against very, very serious problems with polygamy."

He and Utah Federal Solicitor Parker Douglas stressed that the policy of the Utah Attorney General's Office is not to prosecute bigamy unless it is connected to other crimes.

Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said he understands the "uneasiness" that creates among those who practice polygamy, especially since so much of the testimony in favor of the bill emphasized its "evils."

LuAnn Cooper, who had testified at the bill's last hearing that as a member of the Kingston family she had to quit school at 15 to marry her 23-year-old first cousin, said more people would come forward if the state prosecuted more aggressively.

Cooper urged the committee to adopt the bill and said the state needs "to keep it a felony and start going after polygamy."

But Joe Darger testified that while he wants "to go after the bad characters," the bill continues to criminalize polygamy among consenting adults. He said he could stay out of trouble by calling the women he married in private ceremonies his mistresses.

Darger said the bill puts him and his family in an "absurd" situation and suggested it is unconstitutional.

"I had that fear growing up. It’s still with me. But I know I have rights," he said.

The bill passed the committee 7-3 and now goes to the House. A march up State Street to a rally on the steps of the Capitol by opponents of the bill is planned for Friday afternoon. Email: lroche@ksl.com Twitter: DNewsPolitics

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Lisa Riley Roche

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