(Updates) The Utah Legislature decriminalizes some forms of polygamy


SALT LAKE CITY―A bill passed by the Utah Legislature has codified the Utah Attorney General’s long-standing policy of not prosecuting otherwise law-abiding polygamists.

SB102, sponsored by Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, decriminalizes some forms of bigamy. Unlawful cohabitation became a felony in 1935. SB102 reclassifies the crime of bigamy from a felony to an infraction.

However, bigamy will be a third-degree felony if the person is marrying under false pretenses. In addition, bigamy will be classified as a second-degree felony if the person also commits a felony offense of criminal homicide, kidnapping, trafficking smuggling, sexual offenses, child abuse, child abandonment, abuse, neglect or exploitation of a vulnerable adult, or sexual battery.

Proponents of SB102 have said it gives certainty to otherwise law-abiding polygamists so they don’t have to live in fear of prosecution, imprisonment, or having their children removed because of their polygamist lifestyle. The bill may lead to increased societal integration for law-abiding polygamists.

“For the past few years, I’ve been very concerned about the harm that occurs when a marginalized group of people are pushed into the shadows,” Henderson said.

Shirley Draper, a victim advocate and former polygamist, said, “I saw firsthand how the leaders were able to gain control because of the fear of law enforcement. Law enforcement were not my friends and I should never talk to them.” Draper grew up with an intense fear of outsiders. Everywhere she went, Draper said she was visually identifiable as a felon and greeted with hostility.

Henderson visited with current and former polygamous families in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, and along the Wasatch Front. Henderson said she discovered that there are also barriers to medical care, mental health treatment, education, employment, social services and justice for polygamous families. “Utah has a full-blown human rights crisis right here within our state,” Henderson said. “Clearly, what we’ve been doing for 85 years has failed everyone.”

Draper said that Utah has legislated prejudicial treatment to a second-class citizenry. “When my mom tried to leave the community a few years after I did, she moved to St. George,” Draper said. “When she went to change her driver’s license, the clerk denied her driver’s license and told her, ‘We don’t want you here.’” Draper’s mom returned to Colorado City and died after not accessing the medical care she needed.

In order to appropriately address the problems among some polygamous families and communities, Henderson said the state of Utah must reject the premise that all polygamists are abusers or abuse victims. “There are many good people raising children in loving homes who are also polygamists,” Henderson said. “I have visited with many of these families. They love their country. They are patriotic. Many of them have served their country with honor.”

Draper said, “In my work as a victim advocate, I see sexual abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse in every structure. I see it in Christian families, monogamous families, and polygamous families. But no one has ever dared say that it’s the family structure that causes those abuses.”

In Utah, it is legal for a person to be married, have adulterous affairs, and have children with multiple partners live together. However, when these people report to be spouses, it is a felony. 

Henderson said, “The wall Utah has built to keep people out of polygamy is the very wall that’s trapping them inside.”

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