The Utah State Senate has unanimously passed a bill that will dispel fears of prosecution for plural marriage in a state known for its ties with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), where religiously-based polygamy is common.
SB 102, also known as the Bigamy Amendments, proposes to reclassify bigamy as an infraction instead of a felony. While violations of consent — “inducing involuntary bigamy,” the bill calls them — remain serious crimes with serious penalties attached, cases of plural marriage between consenting adults would carry roughly the same import as a traffic ticket, involving a fine and possible community service.
The law maintains stiff penalties against other crimes committed in conjunction with polygamy, such as fraud, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and human trafficking, even adding steeper penalties for polygamy-based homicide or failure to pay child support.
But the mere fact of polygamy, absent other law-breaking behavior, is no longer enough to net a prison sentence.
The Salt Lake Tribune describes the bill as having “sailed through” the Senate with little opposition after women from polygamous communities testified before members of the Utah Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee.
Those impacted by the practice explained that the criminalization of polygamy did not keep them safe or protect them from abuse. Rather, the ban created a situation where entire families and communities were isolated from outside services… which meant that, in abusive situations, victims had nowhere to turn for help or support.
Shirlee Draper, a former FLDS church member who works as a victim advocate, explained that she — like most children from polygamous families — was taught to fear and avoid law enforcement throughout her childhood. Laws banning polygamy meant that, in unhealthy family situations, victims often protected their abusers to avoid bringing the law down on non-abusive loved ones. Stigma against plural marriage meant that polygamous families were inherently presumed abusive, violent, and coercive, and police had the power to criminalize the entire family unit.
The bill’s sponsor, Senator Deirdre Henderson (R-Spanish Fork), notes that criminalization of plural marriage has done nothing to deter or eliminate the practice. Rather, it has driven it underground, putting strain on polygamous families and creating barriers to employment, education, and health care. The isolation creates an advantage for abusers, who can manipulate the fear of legal sanctions to keep their victims in line:
In these isolated, insular communities, that’s where a lot of the problems can really escalate. And that’s where the bad people can really — and have — weaponized the law in order to keep their victims silent and isolated in their control.
Not everyone buys into that rationale for the legal changes, however. Advocates from the anti-polygamy Sound Choices Coalition argue that polygamy as it appears in the FLDS is inherently coercive, misogynist, abusive, and traumatic, and cannot be separated from spiritual abuse.
Patriarchal polygamists believe that the prophet or priesthood leader the women marry ‘presides over them’ and he is therefore entitled to receive revelation from God concerning the women, empowering the male leaders with an ecclesiastical and fiduciary status beyond that of standard ordained clergy… Women are required to repent of their sins, and the repentance process can be publicly humiliating, [psychologically] devastating, and even physically violent if necessary to achieve the desired humility and obedience.
The group’s director, Angela Kelly, recently stirred up controversy when, in protest against the Bigamy Amendments, she drew a comparison between polygamy and slavery by placing a label that said “slave” in front of Utah’s first African-American woman legislator, Representative Sandra Hollins (D-Salt Lake City).
While she maintains that she did not intend to identify Hollins as a slave, she maintains that no apology is necessary and that the expectations placed on FLDS wives constitute slavery as well as abuse.
Kelly is not alone in the points she makes. Professor Rose McDermott, author of The Evils of Polygyny, describes evidence linking polygyny (the marriage of one man to multiple women) to sex trafficking, domestic violence, decreased education, increased child labor, malnourishment, genetic abnormalities, depression, and anxiety, among other issues.
At the same time, correlation does not equal causation. Does polygyny create or exacerbate these social ills? Or are these problems a symptom of the same patriarchal system under which polygyny flourishes? Is polygamy the problem, or is it the power structures at work within the FLDS Church?
And in any case, do consenting adults have the right to set themselves in harm’s way for the sake of their own convictions? Should the state be able to veto individuals’ marital choices, whether within or outside of a given religious framework? How do we make sure a person’s choices are truly informed?
For Henderson, the purpose of the law is to permit polygamous communities to move out of isolation, so their members can grow to make truly informed choices about the future:
The goal is to lessen the fear and secrecy so that as children grow up integrated into society they will have better access to education, which of course leads to a better understanding of their opportunities in life. Children in closed societies are often barred from choice. Easing up on criminal penalties for otherwise law-abiding polygamists will lessen the need for secrecy and isolation.
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