SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would change polygamy from a felony to an infraction passed unanimously Monday in the Utah Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee and is set now to go to the full Senate.
After Utah declared bigamy a felony in 1935, the polygamist families in the Salt Lake Valley began relocating to Short Creek, now known as Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, in order to escape prosecution.
The first government raid occurred the same year in August, and over the next two decades, the state engaged in the widespread removal of hundreds of children from polygamist families, said Sen. Deidre M. Henderson, chief sponsor of the proposed Bigamy Amendments bill, designated as SB102 in the 2020 Utah Legislature. The bill is being co-sponsored in the Senate by all four Southern Utah senators.
“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,” Henderson said.
Shirlee Draper, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has been a proponent for the decriminalization of bigamy for a long time. The fear of government intrusion and being taken away from her parents outlines her childhood, having been raised by a father who was taken from his family at the age of 12 in a 1953 government raid.
When it comes to how that fear is ingrained into the fabric of the community, Draper said:
All of my life I heard about that raid. I heard about how law enforcement was not my friend. I heard about how if we disclose anything about our families, then I could be taken from my parents. And so it’s nothing so overt as sitting me down as a 15-year-old and saying, ‘Oh, by the way, don’t talk to the cops.’ It’s a daily, daily dose of ‘This is what happened to me.’ This is a well-founded fear. This isn’t something they cooked up to keep people quiet.
Around 16 years ago at the age of 31, Draper left Colorado City and her religion. She wasn’t escaping from her marriage, she said, as both her husband and sister wife were loving parents to her children; she was escaping from Warren Jeffs after he rose to power in 1998.
“He started utterly changing everything, and I could see that my children were not going to be safe in the institutions he was creating,” she said.
After leaving, she became the director of Cherish Families, an advocacy program for victims of abuse.
The reason Warren Jeffs was able to rise to power, Draper said, was because the past actions of law enforcement drove the people into the dark.
There has been some opposition expressed to the bill for fear that removing the criminal penalization could cause further oppression of the women in the community as a way to maintain control.
One woman who spoke against the bill during the public hearing on Monday said she was raised in polygamy and felt the laws in place were what helped set her free.
“As a child growing up there, I can tell you my only, the only, friend I felt like I had was the law,” she said. “When I left, I realized all my life I’d been thought of as property.”
The main purpose of school for girls in Short Creek was to learn how to be a good wife. The woman said she remembers writing over and over in her schoolbooks how she was going to belong to someone someday and that marriage was the only given choice.
“I think the law is there for a reason, and it’s for people like me who feel trapped. And they’re there to keep us from being trapped in this religion,” she said.
Easton Harvey, advisor for Sound Choices Coalition, an advocacy organization for polygamists, also spoke against the bill saying the reason crime is not reported goes beyond a fear of government.
“The primary reason (polygamists) do not report crimes is because of a weaponized god, is because of a weaponized scripture, because they’re trying to protect their priesthood, because they are fearful of losing their family outside of anything the law is going to do them,” Harvey said.
Henderson said for 85 years, state policymakers have been thinking about polygamy in one way: “We need to stop it.” And in order to stop it, she said, there need to be really harsh criminal penalties, yet these harsh penalties often cause unintended consequences, pushing people further into the shadows.
“Because of the fear of prosecution, crime often goes unreported, victims are silenced and perpetrators are empowered,” Henderson said.
Though Henderson said she would like to decriminalize plural marriage, she didn’t think it would make it through the legislature, but by taking away the fear of imprisonment or of children being rounded up and taken away, these amendments would at least strike a balance in which to move forward.
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.
“Our current law is unenforceable and quite possibly unconstitutional,” Snow said.
While the proposed bill diminishes the felony charge to an infraction, the amendments increase penalties for those who are engaging in any sort of abuse or other serious crimes, codifying the long-standing practice of the Utah Attorney General’s office and county attorneys.
“Don’t prosecute otherwise law-abiding polygamists unless other crimes are being committed,” Snow said.
Under the proposed bill, a person could still be charged with a third-degree felony if bigamy is induced under fraudulent or false pretenses or threat or coercion.
The charge would increase to a second-degree felony if an individual cohabitates with another individual who is engaged in the latter and “commits a felony offense in violation of one or more of the following: criminal homicide, kidnapping, trafficking, smuggling, sexual offenses, child abuse – child abandonment, abuse neglect or exploitation of a vulnerable adult, child abuse homicide, sexual battery, criminal non-support or the Cohabitant Procedures Act.”
Utah has the harshest bigamy law west of the Mississippi. Vigorous enforcement of the law during the mid-20th century — as in the Short Creek raid in 1953 — did not deter the practice of plural marriage, Snow said.
“Instead, these government actions drove polygamous families underground into a shadow society where the vulnerable make easy prey,” he said. “Branding all polygamists as felons has facilitated abuse of women and children — not eliminated polygamy.”
If this bill does become law, it’s still a long road toward healing and diminishing the overburdening fear within these communities. Changing the law is not an overnight cure.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” Draper said. “If we can get people to come out of the shadows, then we can begin to target and take care of the abuses that happen in those structures.”
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