Herald editorial: Polygamy bill pragmatic, not an endorsement of lifestyle
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, speaks with other senators before the final legislative session begins at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Salt Lake City.
Melissa Ellis, center, waits with her daughter, Linda Owen, 7, left, and Sophia Owen, 8, for the rest of her children to get out of school on Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Riverdale. Ellis fled a marriage in the polygamous Kingston clan and has emerged as a leader in the passage of a bill making polygamous refugees eligible for state crime victim grants. She has since remarried outside of the Kingston family and lives with her husband and eight children in Weber County.
On Monday, a Utah House committee unanimously passed a bill that significantly reduces the penalties for polygamy in the state of Utah.
The bill, Senate Bill 102, sponsored by state Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, would reclassify bigamy as an infraction. The House didn’t take much time to consider the bill, passing it overwhelmingly.
Although Utah is a state with a sordid and, perhaps, sensitive history with polygamy, Henderson has said the bill’s intent is not to legalize polygamy. Instead, its aim is to enhance access to public safety and other services in communities and populations that would otherwise forgo them out of fear of prosecution for their marital arrangement.
This makes a great deal of sense.
Current polygamy laws have created a number of closed communities in the state that could use additional access to public safety services. Not only that, but deeming polygamy a felony has also created an underclass in Utah that has been the subject of more than one documentary and television show.
Under this bill, members of the FLDS Church, largely in southern Utah, could still be prosecuted for welfare crimes, incest and child abuse. Likewise, other communities that practice polygamy could still be prosecuted for various financial crimes being run through their businesses.
That, in our perspective, is the key to Henderson’s bill. Otherwise law-abiding citizens in consensual, adult, polygamous relationships ought to be able to seek law enforcement and other services without fear of criminal prosecution.
It’s important to separate favoring this bill for its pragmatic reasons from supporting polygamy, or polygyny, or polyandry, or even polyamory as a relationship construct worthy of legal protections and given credibility through the state. That is a matter that is separate from this bill and, although the argument that this is an endorsement of polygamy is perceived as being inherent in the text, it is not being considered at this time.
It’s also important to note that while it’s not discussed in polite society, polygamy is, without question, present in Utah County. For many of these particular residents, by some estimates thousands of them, it makes very little sense to impose the consequences of a felony conviction if they’re just trying to live their lives in a safe neighborhood with good schools.
The optics may not look the best to the outside world but Utah regularly bucks the trend of mainstream U.S. politics.
With such a unique history, unique solutions are required in Utah to ensure communities that practice polygamy have access to many of the same resources the rest of the public enjoys without worry.
Gov. Gary Herbert ought to sign this bill into law, let consenting adults make the decision for themselves and start the process of eliminating Utah’s self-created closed communities.