The Utah Senate’s Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously this week to decriminalize polygamy in the state. The bill, SB 102, will now advance to the full Senate, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
SB 102 reduces polygamy from a federal offense punishable by up to five years in prison to an infraction with a maximum fine of $750 and potential community service. The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Deidre Henderson, believes it will help victims of abuse or fraud within polygamist families.
“They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens,” said Henderson, according to Faithwire. “They feel like Utah has legalized prejudice against them. They want to be honest people, but feel like they have to lie or teach their children to lie about their families in order to stay safe.”
In an op-ed article for the Salt Lake Tribune, Henderson chronicled her research on polygamist families in Utah.
“Like alcohol’s prohibition a century ago, which gave rise to Al Capone and a dangerous black market, today’s prohibition on polygamy has created a shadow society in which the vulnerable make easy prey,” she said.
“It is in these reclusive environments that abuse happens with impunity. Fear and isolation breed secrecy, like a petri dish in which dark and ugly things grow.”
Henderson made it clear that she doesn’t want to legalize polygamy. She hopes to “address the human rights crisis our law has created.”
But critics are concerned that changing the law will create a culture of freedom. Easton Harvey of the Sound Choices Coalition, an anti-polygamy advocacy group, believes that abusive situations happen because of the family culture, not because of the law.
“The primary reason [people trapped in polygamy] do not report crimes is because of a weaponized God, because of weaponized Scripture, because they’re trying to protect their priesthood,” he said.
Ora Barlow, who was raised in a polygamist family, also pushed back against the bill. She felt relief when the leaders in her community were jailed.
“The law is there for a reason,” she said. “And it’s for people like me who feel trapped.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Motortion
Mikaela Mathews is a freelance writer and editor based in Dallas, TX. She was the editor of a local magazine and a contributing writer for the Galveston Daily News and Spirit Magazine.