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Utah House committee unanimously approves bill to drop penalty for bigamy

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The Capitol in Salt Lake City is illuminated as the Legislature meets in a special session to consider tax reform on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A House committee voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would lower the penalty for bigamy from a felony to an infraction — legislation aimed at breaking down barriers of fear and encouraging those experiencing abuse to step forward for help.

SB102, which passed out of the Senate unanimously last week, has been subject to a great deal of scrutiny, controversy and intense emotion as it has made its way through the Legislature. Monday’s committee hearing was no exception, though lawmakers passed the bill through with little comment.

The public debate, however, was emotional and, at times, charged. A wave of hands shot up around the room when the committee asked how many people from the public came to speak towards the bill — both for and against. In the end, a little less than half had time to talk before the committee moved on to the next bill, though the presentation still stretched over an hour.

Bill sponsor Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, began her presentation by outlining the history of polygamy in the state and the detrimental impact its criminalization has had on countless innocent parties.

85 years ago, Henderson said, Utah made unlawful cohabitation a felony in an attempt to stop the practice of plural marriage. Instead, polygamous families started moving to the edge of the state in an attempt to escape prosecution.

The law was “vigorously” enforced for the following two decades — the resulting raids and prosecutions prompting the removal of hundreds of children from polygamous families, Henderson said. Rather than deterring the practice, government action further “isolated polygamist communities, drove them underground, instilled fear, and led to a culture of secrecy.”

“I’ve been deeply concerned about the harm that occurs when a marginalized group of people is pushed into the shadows of society,” Henderson said, pointing out that policymakers for years have looked to a single strategy to combat polygamy: harsher penalties.

Following extensive hours consulting with social workers, education professionals, law enforcement, advocates, and even spending time in a polygamist community, Henderson said she believes it’s time to try something new.

Henderson said she’s spoken with victims of various crimes who felt like they didn’t have access to justice because coming forward would expose their lifestyle and could result in a felony charge.

This fear doesn’t just relate to their ability to get justice, Henderson said. Polygamous communities also face barriers to accessing medical care, mental health treatment, education, employment and social services.

She emphasized SB102 isn’t meant to make it easier for people to become involved in polygamy, but rather its purpose is “to tear down the barriers to social integration in order to make it easier for people to get out.”

The bill also classifies bigamy as a third-degree felony if the person is marrying “under false pretenses;” classifies “threatening or coercing” someone to enter a bigamous relationship a third-degree felony; and makes it a second-degree felony if a felony offense occurs concurrently.

Henderson emphasized that the legislation would simply codify the Utah Attorney General’s longstanding policy of not prosecuting polygamy unless another crimes occur.

Drawing on her personal experience being born and raised in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Shirlee Draper became emotional as she spoke about her “intimate knowledge” of the polygamist community.

Draper, now the director of operation for Cherish Families, spoke of the collateral damage she suffered from the harsh penalties imposed on polygamist communities.

Her father was one of the children taken during the 1953 raid — a period of time in his life that he recounted numerous times to Draper.

“He lived in mortal terror of that happening to me and so did I. He reminded me frequently that law enforcement was not my friend. I remember that we were terrified of outsiders and that we called strangers who came into the community kidnappers,” Draper said.

As a result, she did not apply to government assistance when she needed it.

Draper said she eventually left the community after she saw the way Warren Jeffs’ rise to power destroyed or hurt families. At that point she said she recognized that she needed to leave and get her children out, but found doing so extremely difficult because, without the support of the group, she faced “the hatred of the outside world.”

“With the current law in the state, we’ve codified discrimination, prejudice and stigma so that even people that want to leave can’t do it. We keep people in powerless situations,” Draper said, emphasizing that fear of mistreatment from the outside world and fear of losing their children keep many victims from coming forward.

But others in attendance felt the legislation is not the right move forward.

Melissa Ellis, vice president of Sound Choices Coalition, said knowing that polygamy was illegal helped her to leave her own polygamist community.

“With polygamy being illegal it nagged at me and it helped push me to leave. I may have not gotten that push I needed to leave if had I not known it was illegal,” Ellis said, pointing out that had the bill come forward when she was attempting to make the decision she likely would have talked herself down.

She said she believes having an amnesty clause for victims of abuse is better than reducing the penalty.

Tonia Tewell, Holding out HELP executive director, said that while the bill is supposed to make reporting abuse easier, her clients have “unanimously” told her that it would not and it would only “embolden the perpetuators.”

“My clients say they won’t report because they would betray the priesthood and bring shame on their community and face eternal damnation,” Tewell said. “Growing up we were never told exactly what the law was and frankly it didn’t matter to us. Instead we were taught about traitors, torture and hell to scare us into submission.”

In the end the committee thanked the public for their comments and for sharing their personal stories. The bill will next be considered by the full House.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the bill passed the House last week. It passed the Senate.