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Op-ed: Legislature should protect girls in polygamy

By Rebekah Wightman

First Published Feb 01 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 01 2014 01:01 am

At a federal hearing this past week, a man was sentenced to 15 years in a federal penitentiary after authorities found him in possession of child pornography and engaging in a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl.

The 15-year federal sentence reflects the priority that the United States puts on protecting children. It also establishes a precedent that states may emulate. Utah has developed a number of laws targeting the protection of children, but often undercuts the enforcement of these laws to prioritize other state policy.

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Utah’s enforcement of laws targeting underage marriage changes when words like spiritual, religious or polygamous are the adjectives describing the marriage. The deference Utah gives to this religious shield, masking otherwise illegal activities, makes it harder to sort out just who the violator is and how to help the victim, or if there even is a victim.

But a 12-year-old girl is a 12-year-old girl, no matter if she lives in Salt Lake City or in Hildale, and no 12-year-old girl should be sexually violated.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office has repeatedly made commitments to target the underage marriages occurring within Utah’s polygamous communities, but it is difficult.

Intervention relies on the abused accessing the authorities and advocating for themselves. This is a herculean feat for almost any victim of sexual abuse, but the stakes are even higher when the violator’s behavior is socially acceptable and even encouraged within the victim’s immediate environment.

As Utah’s 2014 legislative session gets under way, defining marriage remains at the center of the state’s political milieu. Both Judge Robert Shelby’s recent decision striking down Amendment 3 and Judge Clark Waddoups’ decision finding the cohabitation clause of the polygamy statutes unconstitutional have significant ramifications on Utah’s definition of marriage. After listening to a speech given this week by Utah’s House majority leader regarding the goals of the 2014 legislative session, it is apparent that the lack of legal definition for marriage has led to a halt on legislative reform for polygamy.

Therefore, it is my suggestion that the Legislature ask a different question. Instead of focusing on how marriage is defined, the Legislature should ask to whom they owe a duty. If it is clear to whom a duty is owed, it will be clearer what remedy is owed, and knowing these two components can clarify what legislation should be made.

The Legislature owes a duty to its constituency, and within that constituency, its highest duty is to the most vulnerable members. In the case of polygamy, that means the young girls trafficked into underage marriages, sexually exploited and abused. It means the wives trapped in relationships marked by dominance instead of love and expectations of obedience instead of equality. It means young boys rendered homeless during adolescence.

Does this happen in every polygamous relationship? No. Does this happen in some polygamous relationships? Yes. Does this happen in enough polygamous relationships that it is cause for concern? Yes.


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Or at least, Judge Robert J. Bauman of British Colombia thought so in his 2011 decision which found that polygamy harms women and children. In fact, he found the harms so egregious that he justified a religious rights infringement in order to keep anti-polygamy laws in place.

If the Utah Legislature asks to whom they owe a duty, their focus will expand from simply defining polygamy to including the harms that result from polygamy. Though the solutions to these harms will not be simple, this change in focus could result in more creative ways to combat the harms polygamy presents.

There are so many important issues to confront during this legislative session and only seven weeks within which to address those needs. But if Utah’s legislators know to whom they owe a duty, they will speak up this session for the silent constituency within Utah’s polygamous communities.

Rebekah Wightman will graduate this year from the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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