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Utah Senate unanimously backs bill to lower penalty for bigamy

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislation to drop the penalty for bigamy from a felony to an infraction in hopes of making the victims of abuses in polygamous communities more willing to step forward passed out of the Senate unanimously Tuesday.

SB102, which will now go to the House, would also enhance penalties for bigamy when done in concurrence with other crimes like fraud, child marriage and abuse.

Bill sponsor Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said the legislation does four things: reclassifies the crime of bigamy from a felony to an infraction; classifies bigamy as a 3rd degree felony if the person is marrying “under false pretenses”; classifies “threatening or coercing” someone to enter a bigamous relationship as a 3rd degree felony; and classifies it as a 2nd degree felony if a felony offense occurs concurrently.

Henderson said the purpose of the bill is to “codify long-standing policy of the Utah Attorney General’s Office and the other county attorneys” regarding law-abiding consenting adults who practice polygamy while also allowing for enhanced penalties for those who commit other serious crimes.

Following an emotional and lengthy debate, the bill passed out of committee unanimously last week.

During that meeting, Henderson stressed that the felony charge for bigamy terrified victims and drove those subject to abuse, fraud or other crimes underground, isolating them further.

She reiterated this point Tuesday following the vote, saying it’s important to call “abuse abuse” and not equate polygamy between consenting adults with something else that is “really bad.”

“There are a lot of problems that can happen in polygamous situations, but there are a lot of problems that can happen in lots of different situations,” Henderson said. “I think when we create a situation where there’s a lot of isolation and marginalization, and these isolated communities — that’s where a lot of problems can really escalate. That’s where the bad people can and really have weaponized the law in order to keep their victims silent, isolated and under control.”

Tuesday’s discussion to the bill was brief, but several lawmakers asked for clarification on a few points.

Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said he’s received many emails from people claiming that the Legislature is legalizing polygamy in Utah.

Henderson said this is not the case, pointing out that the Utah Statewide Association of Prosecutors would actually prefer the Legislature to completely decriminalize bigamy rather than changing the penalty to an infraction.

Following the vote, Henderson said she’s grateful that her colleagues had such an open mind about the legislation.

She acknowledged that the bill is not an easy “overnight” solution and that it’s going to take some time to remedy some of the problems current law has imposed.

“I think ultimately we’ve created more problems though this law, through the fear that it’s caused, and we need to start moving in a different direction,” Henderson said.