Polygamist families organized a “Liberty March” on the steps of the Utah Capitol building to protest the criminalization of their lifestyle as well as what they believe to be an attack on their free speech and religious rights. Kody Brown of the reality television show, Sister Wives, and hundreds of other plural marriage families, stood together in solidarity in both a rare and risky public display of their faith.
“If we were gay, we’d be OK,” was just one of many slogans painted on signs which captivated media attention during the polygamy Liberty March in Utah. “I love all my moms,” and “Families not Felons,” were other popular phrases written on placards or chanted during the plural marriage demonstration.
The polygamists chose to protest after the United States Supreme Court shot down the request to review a case brought by Kody Brown and his four wives who appear with him on TLC’s Sister Wives series. The Supreme Court decided to allow Utah’s polygamy law to remain in place. State lawmakers are currently debating House Bill 99 (HB99) which could impose even more harsh punishments on those caught engaging in plural marriage in Utah, the Daily Mail reports.
— Julia Ritchey (@juliaritchey) February 10, 2017
The Utah polygamists staunchly maintain they are being treated as second class citizens and the societal marginalization only helps to keep those who use plural marriage in an abusive manner, to go undetected. It is not illegal to have both a wife and a mistress in Utah, but calling the mistress a second wife and living together as a family unit, could land the consenting adults behind bars.
“I am not a criminal,” Joe Darger, a Utah polygamist and Liberty March organizer, said. “If you commit adultery, that’s not a felony. It’s only a crime when you have a family and you pretend to be married,” Darger, who has three wives, continued.
— National Polygamy (@MHenkelPolygamy) February 11, 2017
Republican Utah Representative Mike Noel is the sponsor of HB99. Noel claims the changes to existing state polygamy laws would help Utah statutes survive future high court challenges. The existing law appears to some legal experts to criminalize cohabitation between only two people. Before the Liberty March began, Representative Noel and about six women who had left polygamous communities, hosted a press conference to defend his anti-polygamy bill.
The group said they believe plural marriage hurts both women and children. The women and Noel also said the private polygamous communities can be filled with instances of sexual abuse, welfare fraud, forced labor, and child abuse.
“They are hiding behind polygamy to get away with incest, underage marriages, child abuse, spousal abuse,” LuAnn Cooper, a former Kingston polygamous family member, said when testifying in support of the Utah polygamy bill, Fox 13 News notes.
Many, if not all, of the polygamy families at the rally live among the rest of society, are professionals, and allow their children to attend public schools.
There are about 39,000 polygamists currently living in Utah. The Mormon Church, or the mainstream version of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ended the practice of plural marriage in 1890. The continued practice of polygamy has long pitted modern-day Mormons against fundamentalists who still wish to follow the ways detailed in the old scriptures.
Representative Noel is a follower of the Mormon faith. He told the press his great-grandfather was sent to jail for being a polygamist. The Utah State Representative also detailed how much it irritates him that polygamists still refer to themselves as Mormons.
“They’ve hijacked my religion and I actually resent that,” Noel stated.
Utah prosecuting attorneys said they typically leave the polygamists in their respective communities alone, but still overall support the plural marriage ban. The prosecutors claim the polygamy law is essential to empowering them to pursue polygamists for other crimes. In Utah, about 10 people have been charged with violating the polygamy ban between 2001 and 2011.
The proposed polygamy law bans married people from living with an additional spouse or purporting to have a second wife, or “spiritual spouse.” If a Utah polygamists does not call unmarried women he is in a relationship with a “wife” of any type, no crime has been committed. The wording of the law is the primary reason polygamists claim their First Amendment right to free speech is being infringed upon.
— JoJo (@JordoKnell) February 11, 2017
HB99 was approved by a House committee this week and will soon be put forth for a vote by the full Utah State House of Representatives. The bill also shields anyone who leaves a polygamous lifestyle from fear of prosecution.
“I’m missing the point as to why this bill is even needed,” Republican Representative Tim Quinn, said during the HB99 hearing.
Fellow Republican Representative Brian Greene filed an amendment to the bill to make polygamy only a misdemeanor crime – with the ability to enhance charges if evidence of other crimes exist. Representative Noel opposed the change.
“I’ve made some commitments to people to not change the statute,” Noel said and declined to elaborate further.
Republican Representative Lowry Snow requested the bill be held over for more debate because he felt more time was needed to work on the wording of the Utah polygamy ban bill.
Utah had to ban the practice of polygamy before being granted statehood and the measure was added to the state constitution.
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