House passes bill to ‘recriminalize’ polygamy in Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY -- In a debate that was heated at times, the Utah House passed a bill that would effectively "recriminalize" polygamy in Utah.

House Bill 281 is being run in response to a lawsuit pending in federal court by reality TV polygamist Kody Brown and his four wives, who sued Utah over its historic ban on plural marriage. In 2013, a federal judge struck down part of Utah's ban, making it no longer a crime for multiple people to cohabitate together or "purport" to be married.

HB281's sponsor, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said his bill would alter Utah's anti-bigamy law by making it a crime again, but also effectively moot Brown v. Buhman, pending before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Polygamist Kody Brown (center) and his wives (left to right) Janelle, Meri, Robyn and Christine. (Image courtesy TLC)

Polygamist Kody Brown (center) and his wives (left to right) Janelle, Meri, Robyn and Christine. (Image courtesy TLC)

After representatives of Utah's polygamous communities fought the bill in a House committee hearing, lawmakers voted to drop bigamy from a felony to a misdemeanor. Rep. Earl Tanner, R-West Jordan, made an amendment Wednesday to drop bigamy from a misdemeanor to an infraction, meaning it would carry no jail time -- just a fine.

Rep. Tanner referenced his great-grandfather, who had five wives, when he asked the House to drop the offense to the lowest possible.

"You can see what making it a felony has done. It has created these polygamous families which are like organized crime," he said. "Why? Because we have made them all like criminals."

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, then made his own amendment to bring polygamy back to a third-degree felony, with a prison term as a possible punishment. He argued prosecutors should have the discretion to drop the offense, not the legislature.

"We don't know what the future will bring and what the Supreme Court may or may not do as they define marriage," Stratton said.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, pointed out that Utah's Constitution requires that polygamy "is forever prohibited," arguing to keep it a felony. Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton argued that rape and sex abuse are already felonies.

Polygamy in Utah around the time of the state's founding. (Image courtesy Utah Dept. of Heritage and Arts collection)

Polygamy in Utah around the time of the state's founding. (Image courtesy Utah Dept. of Heritage and Arts collection)

As the debate heated up, the House Speaker had to interrupt lawmakers twice to chastise them about directly answering questions and not speaking ill of one another.

Lawmakers referenced recent raids by federal agents on the Fundamentalist LDS Church and the Kingston polygamous group. Rep. McCay said decriminalizing polygamy would free people to report abuse.

"Keeping this law a felony drives these communities to put up walls and circle the wagons around them and they do not report crimes that happen within the community," he said.

Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, suggested the LDS Church wanted to see the bill passed.

"I cannot find a rational argument for this felony. I get our history. I am not shying away from that argument," Rep. Anderegg said. "I understand The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has concerns, or so I've been told."

Rep. Stratton insisted no religious group had consulted with him about his floor amendment to make polygamy a felony. Rep. Christensen pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling on same-sex marriage in support of passing the bill.

"We are a state that will continue to uphold our values, our morals, our principles," he said.

The bill passed on a 59-16 vote. It will now go to the Senate for consideration.

Speaking to FOX 13, polygamist Joe Darger, who has three wives, said he was disappointed in the vote.

"Doing an about-face and continuing with a policy that has not worked for over 100 years shows how out of touch the House is with the issue," Darger said. "We're families, not felons. We can open up closed societies by not criminalizing the entire society."