The House passed late Monday a bill to make forcing someone into a marriage — as some polygamist groups are reported to do — a form of legal sexual abuse.

It voted 69-0 to send House Bill 343 to the Senate for more consideration.

The bill would call “subjecting” or “threatening” a child with “a legal or cultural marriage” a matter of sexual abuse for the purposes of determining whether to return a runaway child to his or her parents or other family members.

The bill also would require the courts and the Utah Division of Child and Family Services to take a child’s wishes into consideration when placing him or her in housing.

In an earlier hearing on the bill, most of the discussion was about how HB343 would affect children who flee polygamous groups. Lawmakers heard that young girls who try to leave such groups often tell others: “They’re trying to marry me off.”

Kent Johnson, a spokesman for the Davis County Cooperative Society (DCCS), also known as the Kingston Group, earlier issued a statement opposing the bill but condemning forced marriage.

“The DCCS encourages all our members to marry within the legal age of consent,” the statement said. “We encourage any individuals facing an abusive situation to seek help from an impartial source that is interested in the well-being of the victim or potential victim.”

The statement lists a series of concerns about HB343, including:

  • It adds a vaguely worded definition of abuse, under which any parent in any religion who suggests a future marriage could be defined as abusive.
  • It elevates a child’s right to choose to stay with a friend above that of their parents’ rights, which affords the possibility of affecting all parental rights.
  • Its vague wording opens the state to federal challenges of constitutionality.

Feb. 23: In a hearing that focused on polygamy, Utah legislative committee approves a bill aimed at helping kids being forced into marriage

By Nate Carlisle

LuAnn Cooper left the polygamous Kingston Group years ago. Now she sometimes hears from other girls who are trying to leave.

“The first thing they say is ‘They’re trying to marry me off,’” Cooper told the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.

Cooper testified in support of HB343. The committee voted unanimously to give it a favorable recommendation. The bill now moves to the full House for consideration.

HB343 would call “subjecting” or “threatening” a child with “a legal or cultural marriage” a matter of sexual abuse for the purposes of determining whether to return a runaway child to his or her parents or other family.

The bill also would require the courts and the Utah Division of Child and Family Services to take a child’s wishes into consideration when placing him or her in housing. But most of the discussion was about how HB343 would impact children who run from polygamous groups.

“I think this bill really continues in our pathway of protecting our children in the great state of Utah,” said former Utah Sen. Scott Howell, who testified in support of the bill.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Scott Howell, Chairman of the Pioneer Park Coalition, speaks at a press conference addressing Utah's lack of Medicaid expansion. The press conference was held at the State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, Tuesday August 18, 2015.

Later Friday, Kent Johnson, a spokesman for the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group, issued a statement condemning forced marriage, but opposing the bill.

“The DCCS encourages all our members to marry within the legal age of consent,” the statement said. “We encourage any individuals facing an abusive situation to seek help from an impartial source that is interested in the well-being of the victim or potential victim.”

The statement went on to list a series of concerns about HB343.

  • It adds a vaguely worded definition of abuse where any parent of any religion who suggests a future marriage could be defined as abusive.
  • It elevates a child’s right to choose to stay with a friend above that of their parents’ rights which opens up the possibility of affecting all parental rights.
  • Its vague wording opens up the State to federal challenges of Constitutionality.
  • It does NOT add any additional protection for actual or potential victims of abuse above those already affording by existing statute.

The statement concluded by saying: “Some of the sponsors and advocates of this bill have openly targeted the parental rights of a specific religions under the guise of protection.”

Howell and Cooper last year testified in favor of HB99, which amended the definition of bigamy in Utah to target polygamists and increased the penalties when bigamy is committed in conjunction with crimes such as sex abuse and fraud.

As for Friday’s bill, Shirlee Draper, a former plural wife who now works for an organization lending humanitarian support to fundamentalist Mormon families, urged legislators to make sure a family’s religion isn’t considered a threat to a child — and that the focus remains on whether the child is being coerced into marriage.

“I want to make sure there’s a direct threat to the minors,” Draper said.

After the hearing, she clarified she “mostly” supports the bill. She is just concerned DCFS will remove children based solely on the parents’ religion.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Shirlee Draper, a member of the Board of Trustees of the United Effort Plan Trust, talks about HB99, the latest bill seeking to clarify that polygamy is a felony in Utah. Draper was photographed in Hildale, Monday February 13, 2017.

DCFS Executive Director Diane Moore testified in support of the bill. She told legislators her agency is neutral on parents’ religion and lifestyle.

HB343 “would be about any child in any situation who needed protection,” Moore testified.