Utah Politicians Don't Think They Need Prisons Full Of Sister Wives
In 1846, after being chased out of several states due to their controversial practices, Brigham Young led a group of 148 intrepid Mormons from their Illinois settlement out west, to stake out a place where they could practice their religion in peace. And they found it — in the Great Salt Lake region that would later become the state of Utah. But not for like 50 years. You see the United States didn't want to let Utah become a state, because of all the polygamy. "Sure! Have your religion where you wear special underwear, you can't drink coffee and you get your own planet after you die! We're cool! But you're not getting extra wives, even if it means you get a bigger planet after you die!" (Full disclosure: I am not totally clear on how the planet thing works.)
Eventually, the Mormons gave in and not only made polygamy illegal but also made it clear that it was no longer a tenet in their religion ... and they got to be a state. Since then, polygamy has been illegal, despite the fact that it obviously still goes on. Like with the FLDS and that show on TLC. But it's not just banned, it's a full on felony that will get you up to five years in prison and some hefty fines. It's actually more strict in Utah than in any other state in the country — simply living with an additional "spiritual wife" that you are not even legally married to is a crime.
But on Monday, members of the Utah Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee unanimously voted to approve a bill making polygamy an infraction with a maximum $750 fine, as opposed to a felony. It will now go to the state Senate for a full vote.
Speaking in support of the bill were victim advocates like Shirlee Draper, who say that the law as it stands makes people in polygamous families fear law enforcement, which then also makes it harder for spouses and children to report abuse. She also testified that in her work, she sees abuse and violence from all kinds of families, and not necessarily more of it from polygamous families.
The bill's sponsor, Spanish Fork Republican Sen. Deidre Henderson, argued that the current law doesn't do anything to necessarily prevent polygamy, but does hurt those involved with it.
And rather than eliminate polygamy, Henderson said, the state's laws have created "a full-blown human rights crisis" in which victims of abuse and fraud are afraid to come forward, and in which otherwise law-abiding citizens are labeled as criminals.
"The people that I have spoken with long to feel part of society," Henderson said. "They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens. 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."
I hate to agree with a Republican, but I don't think she's wrong here. Something like that absolutely can deter victims from coming forward. And if they are law-abiding citizens, who cares what they are doing with their personal lives? How is that anyone's business. If they commit a crime, then yes, they should go to prison, but anyone in any kind of marriage can commit a crime, so that seems like a moot point.
There were, of course, some opponents to the bill speaking at the hearing as well:
Easton Harvey, with the anti-polygamy Sound Choices Coalition, said criminalization is a social policy for all of Utah. And the reason that members of a polygamous community are afraid to report crimes is not because they'll be charged as criminals by outsiders, he said, but because of the fear of being ostracized from within or subject to divine punishment.
"The primary reason they do not report crimes is because of a weaponized God," Harvey said, "because of weaponized scripture, because they're trying to protect their priesthood."
Angela Kelly, Sound Choices Coalition director, compared polygamy to organized crime and slavery. To ease the criminal penalties, she said, would encourage more people to live that way.
"To bring it down to an infraction, you're essentially saying this is an OK lifestyle," Kelly said. "And it might be for 10 people, but we're talking about society as a whole."
Society as a whole? Really? I mean, sure, it does seem as though every dude on OKCupid is claiming to be polyamorous these days, but it seems a little unlikely that not throwing people in prison for five years for being in a throuple is going to lead to a society filled with sister wives.
There is a big difference between the young women in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints and the Sister Wives people. In one situation, you have 12-year-old girls being non-consensually married off to 70 year old men, which is already illegal on multiple levels, and in the other, you have four adult women who we can all assume are happy being "married" to some guy with unfortunate hair. I don't know, I have not seen the show, but it doesn't seem like anyone is being held against their will.
It is fully understandable that this bill would make people who grew up in bad polygamist situations nervous. We've all seen how abusive and horrible they can be. But if we made every lifestyle choice known to attract those who abuse children illegal, we'd have to ban people from becoming Catholic priests or IHS doctors as well.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse