SO much for marriage being a sacred union between one man and one woman …
In February the state of Utah voted to decriminalise polygamy and this week Bill SB102 officially became law, much to the disgust of Sound Choices Coalition, a non-profit organisation opposed to mainly religious plural marriages practiced in Utah and other parts of the US and beyond.
When the bill was first passed, Sound Choices said in a press statement:
This is abhorrent to us, many polygamist victims and other Utahn’s who recognize that religious polygamy, as practiced in Utah and around the country, is responsible for many serious human rights violations.
Most who are living in these fundamentalist polygamous groups and families, are treated as property, forced to work without pay, traded as daughters, coerced into having unwanted sex, and into giving birth to numerous children they can not care for.
The organisation called the bill a step toward fully legalising polygamy and said it would promote the spread of the practice.
For decades, bigamy was a third-degree felony in Utah, legally punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine. The new law makes it an infraction, putting the offense on par with getting a traffic ticket.
Polygamy has been practiced in Utah by certain religious groups, notably the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), since before it became a state and continues to persist to this day.
The President of the FLDS, Warren Steed Jeffs, above, was convicted in 2011 of two felony counts of child sexual assault, for which he is currently serving a life sentence plus 20 years.
In 2006, Jeffs was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for his flight from the charges that he had arranged illegal marriages between his adult male followers and underage girls in Utah.
In 2007, Arizona charged him with eight additional counts in two separate cases, including incest and sexual conduct with minors.
In September 2007, Jeffs was convicted of two counts of rape as an accomplice, for which he was sentenced to imprisonment for ten years to life in Utah State Prison. This conviction was overturned by the Utah Supreme Court in 2010 due to flawed jury instructions.
Jeffs was extradited to Texas, where he was found guilty of sexual assault of a child – a 15-year-old he had married – and aggravated sexual assault against a 12-year-old child he had married for which he was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years and fined $10,000.
Though polygamy has long been illegal under state and federal law, the Utah Attorney General’s office has declined to prosecute the offence, except when it’s committed along with other crimes.
The new law makes the AG’s policy official. Supporters of the law say that reducing the penalty for bigamy removes barriers that previously prevented potential abuse victims from coming forward for fear of prosecution.
Republican State Senator Deidre Henderson, above, the bill’s lead sponsor, called Utah’s previous law unenforceable, saying that it didn’t prevent people from engaging in polygamy, but instead isolated polygamous communities and prevented potential victims from reporting abuse.
Vigorous enforcement of the law during the mid-twentieth century did not deter the practice of plural marriage. Instead, these government actions drove polygamous families underground into a shadow society where the vulnerable make easy prey. Branding all polygamists as felons has facilitated abuse, not eliminated polygamy.
Henderson wrote in an op-ed for The Salt Lake Tribune in February that some current and former polygamists had shared with her that they had been abused, but had faced pressure from their families to keep it a secret for fear of the potential consequences they could face in reporting to law enforcement.
Henderson added that she was not looking to legalise polygamy or the issuing of multiple marriage licenses, but was trying to:
Address the human rights crisis our law has created. The intent of the bill is to eliminate the fear of arrest, imprisonment and having children removed into state custody in order to encourage more reporting, make investigating abuse easier, and lower the high barrier to community integration.