SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah bill to drastically lower the penalty for bigamy — but enhances penalties for crimes committed in concert with bigamy such as fraud and child abuse —cleared what is likely its last big legislative hurdle Wednesday.
The Utah House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly, 69-3, to approve SB109, which lowers the penalty for bigamy from a felony, punishable to up to five years in prison, to an infraction, the equivalent to a parking ticket with no threat of imprisonment.
It also classifies bigamy as a third-degree felony if the person is marrying “under false pretenses” or uses threats or coercion to enter a bigamous relationship.
The aim of the bill, as argued by its sponsors Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, and Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, is to drive victims of abuse in polygamist communities out of the “shadows,” where they have been hiding in fear because the felony penalty is used to scare them from seeking help from the outside world.
Snow, presenting the bill to the House floor, pointed to the 1953 raids on polygamist communities in Short Creek, and how polygamist families were “split apart.”
"That fear of prosecution and losing children remains to the point that even in the face of law violations, they are afraid to come forward and report them,” Snow said.
Snow also pointed out it’s been decades since bigamy, as a lone offense, has been prosecuted. Prosecutors throughout the state have for years stepped back from the law as higher courts have struck down criminalization of other lifestyles, and they support the bill.
Snow, pointing to the recent arrest of a Cedar City man for threatening to go into a Walmart and “shoot every polygamist he saw.”
"By branding these people as felons or potential felons, we’ve also given them a second-class status,” Snow said.
Some practicing members of polygamy have supported the bill seeking to lift the stigma of otherwise law-abiding people in plural marriage. As have some victim advocates, who agreed that the felony statute has terrified victims, sending dark behaviors associated with polygamy — such as child abuse or fraud — into the shadows.
But there were also victim advocate groups — including the Sound Choices Coalition and Holding Out HELP — who lobbied against the bill, concerned reducing the criminal penalty would only embolden perpetrators of child abuse and other crimes within polygamous families.
Some lawmakers, like Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-North Ogden, sided with those groups opposing the bill, saying that while “talking heads” and “academic clinicians” favored it, he heard from victims worried about its impact.
"This infraction, as it is practiced currently, is linked to a host of serious crimes,” Andersen said.
Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, also opposed the bill, calling it a “major” and “historic” change to Utah policy that could have unintended consequences.
"I don’t think we can know for sure whether or not this will help victims or hurt victims,” Stenquist said.
The bill now returns for concurrence on a technical amendment to the Senate, where it’s already won support.