Utah Lawmaker Wants State To Take Another Look At Polygamy Laws, Make It A Minor Offense Like A Traffic Ticket

The state's history with the practice is 'complicated,' to put it mildly.

utah's capitol building from the air
Jkinsocal / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 Cropped and Resized)

The state's history with the practice is 'complicated,' to put it mildly.

A Utah lawmaker wants his state’s legislature to take another look at its laws against polygamy, MSN reports. The Beehive State officially outlaws polygamy, but many people in the state still openly participate in plural marriages.

Utah’s relationship with polygamy is “complicated,” says writer Andrew O’Reilly. The state was founded, settled, and to this day is overwhelmingly populated by people who adhere to the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), or “Mormons,” more colloquially.

According to The Conversation, Mormons initially practiced polygamy; indeed, by the 1880s as many as 20-30 percent of Mormon families practiced polygamy. However, around this time, polygamy was made a federal offense, which presented problems for the Utah Territory and its bid for statehood. And so it was that, in 1890, LDS Church President Wilford W. Woodruff announced that the church would no longer sanction plural marriages. Similarly, the practice was outlawed in the Utah Territory, and later, the state of Utah. Indeed, in 2017, Utah’s legislature made polygamy a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

However, polygamy still goes on in some Mormon communities, in Utah and elsewhere. What’s more, authorities are generally reluctant to prosecute polygamy unless there’s evidence of another crime in connection with it, such as abuse or fraud.

Utah state Senator Deidre Henderson, of Spanish Fork, wants the state legislature to revisit those laws. Specifically, she wants to turn polygamy from a felony into a minor criminal offense punishable only by a small fine, not unlike a traffic ticket.

Her reasoning is that, if the fines for polygamy are comparatively small, more women and children victimized by the practice will come forward to report abuse and/or fraud.

“The general intent behind it is to make sure we are not continuing to create a situation where the victims and witnesses of crimes are afraid to report it because of the lifestyle that they’ve lived,” she said.

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However, Casey Faucon, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama Law School, is not convinced.

“I’m not sure that redoing the law to make polygamy less of an offense will have the intended effect they hope for. It takes more than just changing a law to get people to come forward and report abusive situations,” she said.

Supporters of the bill also point to another possible benefit: lowering the penalty for polygamy to a minor offense will make it easier for authorities to prosecute other crimes that are often concurrent with polygamy, such as spousal or child abuse, welfare fraud, and human trafficking.