Mexico killings renew calls to legalize polygamy in Utah and elsewhere

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) As they prepare to depart for another funeral, relatives of Dawn Langford pose for a photo in La Mora, Sonora, on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019.

Philippa Juliet Meek wrote a series of tweets Saturday about Mormonism and the killings of nine U.S. citizens near La Mora, Mexico. Then she sent one about polygamy.

“Can we please just decriminalise and legalise polygamy?” Meek, a doctoral researcher at the University of Exeter in Devon, England, tweeted. “Like now. #marriageequality

Meek is among the commenters referencing the Mexico massacre as an example of why polygamy should be made legal, or at least have its criminal penalties removed, in Utah and elsewhere.

Herriman resident Brooke Richey, who has distant relatives living in the Mexican Mormon communities, said the fact that Americans are living there — despite threats from drug cartels — shows the dangers involved in maintaining their religious beliefs.

“If polygamy were legalized,” the 23-year-old Richey said, “they probably would come back to the U.S. It just seems like they’re in such a vulnerable place.”

At least one group has pushed back against the idea of making laws friendlier to polygamists. In a Facebook post Monday, Polygamy.org, a coalition of plural marriage opponents, said residents moving from La Mora to the United States “will create more polygamists recruiting wives here, and more advocates trying to decriminalize polygamy.”

Leah Taylor, a former member of the polygamous Apostolic United Brethren, wrote that she is heartbroken for the families of the three mothers and six children slain Nov. 4. But she noted there’s no evidence the killers targeted the families because of their religion or polygamy.

“So to consider rewriting the law to accommodate polygamist families so we can prevent future tragedies is not the solution,” Taylor wrote to The Salt Lake Tribune.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volumes of Journal of Discourses, collected sermons by early leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a home in La Mora, Sonora on Thursday Nov. 7, 2019.

The La Mora killings took place as the Utah Legislature is preparing another debate on polygamy. State Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, is readying a bill for the legislative session, which begins in January, that would reduce the penalty for polygamy to about that of a traffic ticket while also making it easier for law enforcement to pursue polygamists who commit frauds and abuses.

Current Utah law makes polygamy a felony punishable by up to five years in prison or up to 15 years if it is practiced in conjunction with other crimes such as fraud, abuse or human trafficking. The Utah attorney general’s office and other county attorneys in the state have policies of not prosecuting polygamy as a lone offense.

Many of the La Mora residents have family and religious ties to Utah, though none of the impacted families has lobbied publicly for a change to the state’s laws. Of the three families who lost loved ones Nov. 4, only one was from a plural marriage. Dawna Ray Langford, who died with two of her sons, 11-year-old Trevor and 2-year-old Rogan, was a second wife.

But the so-called fundamentalist Mormons in Mexico can trace their reason for being there to the desire to continue polygamy. The first Latter-day Saint colonies were established in the late 19th century because federal authorities cracked down on the practice in Utah. Later, the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially abandoned the practice.

Polygamy is against the law in Mexico, too, but that country has always been more lenient toward it. There has been no roundup of polygamists there like there was in Utah and Arizona as recently as the 1950s.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Flowers at the funeral for Dawna Langford and two of her children, Trevor and Rogan, in La Mora, Sonora on Thursday Nov. 7, 2019.

Last week’s deadly ambush did not necessarily change anyone’s mind about whether polygamy should remain against the law, but the killings did intensify Cristina Rosetti’s view.

She recently received a doctorate from the University of California-Riverside in religious studies and has focused her research on Mormon fundamentalism. She does not prefer polygamy but says it should be legalized so its practitioners, including those in La Mora, feel safe reporting crimes and seeking help.

“People need to recognize,” Rosetti said, “that with these marriages not being legal, there is a challenge for alimony for women who choose to leave. It is hard to get access to resources.

“When people want to go and report crimes that are happening in communities, they are criminals,” she added. “So how do women and children report that?”

Ryan McKnight also believes the Mexico killings have started a new round of discussion about polygamy. McKnight is a former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who co-founded The Truth & Transparency Foundation, which publishes leaked and acquired documents about the Salt Lake City-based faith and other religious institutions.

McKnight said he has detected in the past few years a “growing undercurrent” of former Latter-day Saints desiring that polygamy be prosecuted to protect women and children, but he sees the communities in Mexico as existing only because of the 19th-century targeting of polygamists.

“The reasons behind wanting to criminalize polygamy,” McKnight said, “especially in the context of Mormon polygamy, are rooted in the idea that the critics believe they are solving the problem of a hyper-patriarchal relationship that often results in women and children suffering abuse.

“Trying to criminalize polygamy,” he added, “is the wrong way to solve it.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Langford speaks at the funeral for Dawna Langford and two of her children, Trevor and Rogan, in La Mora, Sonora on Thursday Nov. 7, 2019.

Meek is in the final stages of completing her doctorate at Exeter. She studies perceptions of Mormon fundamentalism and has found much of the public opposition to polygamy is based on the worst stories of the practice.

“They think Warren Jeffs,” Meek said, referring to the imprisoned president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “They think abuse. They think women are being coerced, and that’s not necessarily the case. That’s rarely the case.”