No longer a felony: Bill that changes polygamy to an infraction passes House

FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2015, file photo, community members from Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., attend a memorial service in Hildale, Utah, for 12 women and children swept away in a deadly flash flood in a community on the Utah-Arizona border. The community has been home for more than a century to a polygamous sect that is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism. After nine people belonging to a Mormon offshoot community were killed in Mexico the first week of November 2019, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a short statement expressing sympathy for the victims while clarifying that they didn't belong to the mainstream church. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — After a huge majority of the House voted Wednesday in favor of a bill  that would change polygamy from a felony to an infraction, the bill has one concurrence vote left in the Senate set for Friday.

The Bigamy Amendments bill, SB102, changes a law that dates back to 1935, when, in an attempt to eliminate polygamy, the state of Utah made unlawful cohabitation a felony, chief sponsor of the bill Sen. Diedre Henderson said.

In a previous article, Henderson said that far from eliminating the practice of plural marriage, “these government actions merely isolated polygamist families, drove them underground, instilled fear and led to a culture of secrecy within their communities.”

After being passed by the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, the bill was amended, a technical clean-up of language pertaining to what could be charged as a felony. One of the items listed was sexual battery. Since sexual battery is never charged as a felony, the bill was amended to include misdemeanor offense; otherwise, sexual battery would be moot under the previous definition.

St. George resident, and former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Shirlee Draper said she is hopeful this will allow people to come out of the shadows and that others will “stop being so prejudicial to them, and so they start reporting crimes.”

The next step in this progression will be a process of going through and cleaning up some other laws that are surrounding this, she said. For example, there is a law defining polygamy as preliminary injurious conduct.

“That can’t stand. That has to be modified somewhat,” Draper said. “The next thing we need to do as a state is develop policies in how to treat fundamentalists families, like when they apply for assistance. Because there’s no policy, it just depends on a caseworker.”

In a previous article, Southern Utah Rep. Lowry Snow, who is sponsoring the bill in the Utah House, said that with help from state and county government, Hildale is becoming a more open society. These amendments serve as one more step in providing a safer environment for people in the Hildale community by reducing the fear that has been a barrier to protecting the vulnerable.

Sharing in the optimism, Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop told St. George News that it’s good to be making history in the right direction.

“It’s opening doors for abuses to be reported while protecting the innocent,” she said. “There’s not a lot of polygamists living in Hildale anymore, but we all come from those families, so now we know our families will be protected no matter what they choose to believe — or live.”

The bill passed in the House with a majority of 70 to 3 with two absences.

Ed. note: An earlier version of this article identified the status of the bill as having passed the full Legislature; however, with the amendment, it will still have one more vote in the Senate before it can be enrolled.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2020 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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