clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Utah lawmakers seem intent on passing bigamy law

Utah State Capital Building. Adobe Stock

SALT LAKE CITY — There are cans of worms. There are buckets of snakes. And then, there are bigamy laws in Utah.

No one can accuse Utah lawmakers of being afraid to open any of these. Three years ago, they lowered the legal blood-alcohol limit for drunken driving to .05%, the lowest in the nation. That generated a lot of headlines, and even threats of tourism boycotts because, well, it was different. (Not different from other nations, just other states.)

Now the Legislature is generating headlines because it’s working toward making the state’s bigamy laws more like those in most other states.

But, of course, when it comes to THAT subject, Utah isn’t just like any other state.

A bill reducing the penalty for bigamy from a felony to an infraction passed the Senate unanimously on Tuesday.

Why unanimously? Sen. Deidre Henderson, of Spanish Fork, the bill’s lead sponsor, cuts right to the point.

“Last year we pulled adultery and sodomy off our books,” the Republican told reporters at the Senate’s daily media availability session Tuesday. “It used to be a class B misdemeanor to commit adultery in the state of Utah. Again, something that was never enforced; unenforceable. ...

“So now it’s perfectly legal for someone to be married and to have affairs with multiple people, to have children with multiple partners. They could even live together under one roof. But the minute they call themselves spouses, that’s a felony.

“So I think it’s important to take a step back and look at this in a logical, rational way in our changing society and in light of unintended consequences that might have happened over the years, and revisit our policy.”

That’s actually an effective argument — for the disintegration of society in general.

It’s hard to know how many homes have multiple partners living under one roof. It’s also true that the number of children born to unmarried mothers has declined steadily since 2009. But still, marriage is on the decline, as is child-bearing in general.

Plenty of studies have shown that children don’t fare too well under these circumstances.

But plenty of people who know firsthand describe polygamous relationships, especially as practiced in isolated, rural communities, as producing much worse, horrible results. They note that polygamy in modern Utah tends to be practiced in isolated communities, and that it has been connected with child abuse and host of other ills through the years.

In a guest opinion published by the Deseret News recently, Valerie M. Hudson, a professor at Texas A&M, cited research that found a host of ills associated with legal polygamy.

Ultimately, the argument for and against what Utah lawmakers are in the process of doing some down to the this:

Supporters of decriminalizing bigamy say current law is unenforceable. If authorities were to round up all polygamists, thousands of parents would be imprisoned and tens of thousands of children would be thrown into foster care. Such harsh methods in the past haven’t ended the practice. In fact, they have pushed it underground.

Meanwhile, polygamous parents are afraid to get basic health care for their children or engage in any other way with the outside world because of the law. And criminals who operate within polygamous systems weaponize the law to instill fear and get their way.

These proponents also note that Henderson’s bill would not legalize polygamy. Also, the ills often associated with certain polygamous communities — child abuse, fraud, etc.— still could be prosecuted as crimes.

Opponents, on the other hand, attack the practice, itself, as inherently wrong. They argue that the very act of reducing penalties for bigamy sends a message that government is sanctioning it — something the Legislature wouldn’t do with prostitution or the use of controlled substances, no matter how unenforceable those laws may be.

The law, professor Hudson wrote in her op-ed, is “a powerful teacher and a bright beacon of hope.”

Headlines around the world can’t come close to capturing all these nuances and arguments, but they do send out impressions. It’s those impressions, especially as perceived by victims and perpetrators of crimes, that can matter most.

Henderson reminds people that the State Association of Prosecutors supports her bill and would, in fact, like bigamy to be completely decriminalized.

Utah, with its tens of thousands of bigamists, won’t soon lose its association with the practice.

But if the House follows the Senate’s lead and passes Henderson’s bill, we may soon find out which side in the current debate is right.