Utah legislators vote to make changes to polygamy law but would keep it a felony

A Utah legislative committee advanced a bill that keeps polygamy a felony but offers people leaving a polygamous relationship a chance to avoid prosecution.

HB99 will go to the full House of Representatives for consideration. It adds a criteria for being prosecuted for bigamy: The offender must live with the extra spouse and “purport” to be married. Current law requires only one or the other.

Bigamy is punishable by up to five years in prison, but the punishment under the bill would be up to 15 years if it’s prosecuted in conjunction with crimes such as abuse, fraud or human smuggling.

The bill also would offer amnesty for minors or anyone who leaves a relationship for fear of coercion or bodily harm, or who is trying to protect a child.

Polygamists who attended Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee meeting left disappointed. In the hall outside the meeting room, they discussed a planned rally Friday and how to contact their respective legislators.

Polygamists wanted the bill, HB99, to fail, or at least to make polygamy a misdemeanor that could only be prosecuted alongside violent crimes or fraud.

Some also said the amnesty provision doesn’t protect the consenting adults who remain in the plural marriage. Valerie Darger said she left her first polygamous marriage because her husband was verbally abusive and didn’t support their children, but he and her sister wives shouldn’t have gone to jail for that.

“If I thought it would incriminate them to save me, I would not have come forward,” Darger testified to the committee.

Legislators said Utah needs to stay in compliance with the state constitution, which says polygamy is a crime, and needs more tools to pursue polygamists who force underage marriages and abuse children.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, HB99’s sponsor, said the state’s prosecutors will continue their policy of pursuing abusive men.

“If you look at the way this crime, and it is a crime in this state, has been prosecuted, we have never gone after women and children,” Noel told the committee.

The committee passed the bill 7-3. One of the no votes was Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan. He pushed an amendment to make polygamy a misdemeanor. The committee rejected that move.

Ivory said he dislikes how the law and the statute makes polygamy a felony while adulterers can do as they please. Assistant Utah Attorney General Parker Douglas acknowledged the two standards.

“If they’re simply people having, for lack of a better word, an orgy,” he said, “that’s not illegal.”


Twitter: @natecarlisle