SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that keeps polygamy as a felony passed out of a committee in the Utah State Legislature, once again over the objections of members of the state’s polygamous communities.
House Bill 99 passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on a 7-3 vote and now goes on to the full House of Representatives for debate. The vote happened after lengthy comment and a couple of lawmakers pushing to make polygamy a misdemeanor.
The bill makes it a crime for someone to “purport” to be married and cohabitate with that person.
“If I call them mistresses, I’m OK,” Joe Darger, a polygamist with three wives, told the committee late Tuesday. “But if I tell you I’m married and they are my wives, that is what we’re saying is a felony. That makes no sense.”
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said the bill makes bigamy a third-degree felony, but it’s enhanced to a second-degree felony if it is charged in concert with other crimes like underage marriages, human trafficking, fraud or abuse. Rep. Noel is offering a “safe harbor” from prosecution for people who leave polygamous unions and go to authorities to report crimes.
The bill is being run in response to the “Sister Wives” case the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear. Reality TV polygamist Kody Brown and his wives sued the state over its historic ban on plural marriage, arguing it violated their religious freedom and privacy rights. Rep. Noel told the committee the bill would help guard against a similar legal challenge.
But some committee members questioned the need for the bill. Polygamy remains forever prohibited under the constitution and Utah was forced to abandon the practice as a condition of statehood.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, disagreed with the idea that a man who commits adultery could face a misdemeanor charge under Utah law — while a polygamist faces a felony. He and Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, tried to drop the bigamy offense to a misdemeanor.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office has repeatedly said it does not prosecute polygamy alone, but alongside other offenses.
“Do you foresee the attorney general’s office prosecuting bigamy if we were to pass this as a stand-alone offense?” Rep. Greene asked Federal Solicitor Parker Douglas.
“That is not the policy of the attorney general’s office or any other prosecutor’s office,” Douglas replied.
Rep. Noel argued that to make polygamy a misdemeanor is a “slap on the wrist.” He was joined by ex-members of Utah’s polygamous communities who urged the committee to keep bigamy a felony.
“Passing this law will help people go after people in these groups because there are so many abuses and so many times they hide behind freedom of religion and nothing happens,” said Julie Atkinson, an ex-member of the Kingston group.