SALT LAKE CITY — When a bill about bigamy was first introduced at the Capitol, several polygamists said that they were afraid of being discovered and prosecuted.
“We feel like we have been treated as second class citizens for 120 years,” Terry Wayman, a practicing polygamist, said. The bill faces a senate committee hearing during the closing days of the Legislature.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, says that HB281 clarifies and limits criminal liability and saves Utah Taxpayers $100,000 in attorney fees. He specified that prosecutors in Utah do not prosecute bigamy or polygamy unless there is fraud or abuse.
The purpose of HB281 is to narrow the criminal liability to only be applicable to those who both engage in multiple partner cohabitation and report to be married to more than one person.
Noel realizes that this amendment won’t fix everything, but he believes that it will protect women and children who are sexually abused and will help with the prosecution of individuals who use fraud to gain advantages in the tax or welfare system. “My objective is lessen the hurt that is there and we can’t do that all in one step,” Noel said.
However, Noel clarified that individuals and polygamists who are obeying all the laws will not be prosecuted. “It doesn’t get us all the way to the finish line, but it’s the best we have right now and it gets us out of the lawsuit,” he said.
The bill came as a clarification to the court case with Kody Brown of the television series “Sister Wives” where judge Wadduops struck down a bigamy statute as facially unconstitutional. Utah appealed the case and now it is in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Although Noel said that there are those who would like to totally eliminate prosecution of polygamy, it is stated in the Utah constitution that polygamy with always be prohibited in our state.
“The polygamy community believes that since we passed same sex marriage, they should be allowed to practice their form of marriage,” he said.
Stan Shepp has two wives and lives with both of them, but he doesn’t have a marriage license for either. “I have none of the protections offered to a married man,” he said.
Shepp said that when people found out he was a polygamist, he lost business, but when Judge Wadduops made his ruling, Shepp said he was able to get more work because employers weren’t afraid that he would get arrested on the job.
Although Shepp agrees that bigamy should be done away with, he doesn’t like the word “cohabitation” being included in the bill.
Shepp said that he would like the same laws and protections that monogamous families have to be applied to polygamous families. “I should be allowed to live all of my constitutional rights at any given time,” he said.
Heidi Foster, another polygamist, also said that the law should be amended to be all-inclusive. “The wording in this bill is meant to single out a single group of people,” she said.