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Polygamy policy

Published June 2, 2012 1:01 am

Utah County attorney gets it right
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Utah County Attorney's Office may have raised eyebrows when it declared in a court filing that it would not, as a matter of policy, prosecute polygamists under the state bigamy law unless some form of abuse, violence or fraud were involved. In Utah, this makes practical as well as legal sense.

Polygamy as practiced by several of Utah's fundamentalist Mormon clans is pernicious. It enslaves women from girlhood in a patriarchal and religious web that denies them education, reproductive freedom, self-actualization and career opportunities. It can be equally corrosive in the lives of boys.

But there are exceptions. When consenting adults enter into religious marriages that are polygamous, without the expectation of the benefits of the state's legal sanction, and there is no fraud, violence or abuse involved, there's nothing to be gained by prosecution.

Several of the state's attorneys general have realized this for many years. Current Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has made it a formal policy, and the new policy in Utah County mirrors that reasoning.

The county attorney there stated in the legal filing, "The purpose of this policy is to prevent the future prosecution in Utah County of bigamist marriages entered into for religious reasons." Again, absent any fraud or abuse, it makes sense for prosecutors the err on the side of religious freedom and respect for privacy in intimate relations.

Literalists will point out, correctly, that polygamy is outlawed explicitly in the Utah Constitution. But as in other areas of law enforcement, limited resources must be prioritized. There are an estimated 30,000 polygamists in this state, and it would be impossible to enforce a ban on polygamy across the board. The costs would be too high, and the human price to be paid in broken families would be even higher.

However, when one partner deceives another to achieve a bigamous relationship, or when older men make brides of children, or when incest or violence or sexual assault come to the attention of authorities, that's when charges should be brought and cases tried.

Some legal experts argue that there should be no prosecutions of polygamists based on religious marital status alone, that the laws against other crimes give prosecutors the tools they need to punish and deter abuse without crossing into the difficult constitutional areas of religious freedom and the right to privacy.

That may be correct, and it is the practical consequence of the new policy in Utah County.