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Law sought to aid women leaving polygamy

Organization fears what Amendment 3 may do to victims

Patricia Watson invested more than 20 years of her life into a polygamous marriage — a belief system that she says brought her nothing but abuse, neglect and empty promises.

It wasn't until she decided to leave her marriage that Watson realized she hadn't only been failed by her husband but by the community and courts as well.

"It was a shock how much the system failed me," Watson said at a recent Tapestry Against Polygamy news conference.

The anti-polygamy organization announced plans to pursue legislation to give women leaving polygamous relationships some sort of equitable share of assets they've acquired during their marriages.

For three years, Watson has been fighting in court to establish a right to any shred of the property she believes she's entitled to and for custody of her seven children, who range in age from 3 to 23.

The courts are "so caught up in the definition of marriage, they've forgotten about the rights of individuals," Watson said.

Doug White, attorney for Watson and Tapestry, said he'd like to work with lawmakers and the Attorney General's Office to work on some sort of legislation that would prevent polygamous husbands from using Amendment 3, if it passes Tuesday, as a way to protect their assets in a divorce.

The amendment would define marriage as "a man and a woman" and prevent any other "domestic union" from being given the same or substantially similar legal effect as a marriage.

Tapestry executive director Vicky Prunty, who opposes Amendment 3, said that language fails to take into account "the unique barriers to women leaving polygamy."

White said all too often, polygamous men hide behind the very law they broke to deny that they were ever married, and therefore aren't required to share any assets with their multiple wives. Alimony, child support and child custody are also issues that don't take into account relationships in which more than two people are involved, he said.

While he doesn't yet have details of his proposal, White said it's needed to protect the rights of any individual in a nontraditional relationship, whether or not Amendment 3 passes.

"I think it would clarify civil rights and due process guaranteed to each person, heterosexual or homosexual," he said of his proposal. "It would guarantee property rights following a relationship."

Scott McCoy, head of the Don't Amend Alliance campaign opposing the amendment, said such legislation won't be possible if Amendment 3 passes, since constitutional law takes precedence over any other legislation or court ruling.

"Amendment 3 can only make that situation even more confused and more difficult," McCoy said. "It's basically handing her polygamous husband another constitutional argument to keep from giving her anything."

Monte Stewart, co-chairman of the Utahns for a Better Tomorrow campaign supporting the amendment, said he doesn't see a conflict between Amendment 3 and any proposed law, since a court can divide property without giving legal recognition to a relationship.

A judge "will settle the equities between the parties," he said. "That's a far different thing from giving official state approval to a relationship defined by its sexual basis and walks, talks and acts like a marriage."