Bill to decriminalize polygamy earns unanimous approval from Utah Senate committee

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, listens to comment at the first public hearing for SB102, which would make polygamy between consenting adults an infraction (punishable by a ticket but no arrest or jail time) instead of a felony, on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020.

Growing up in Colorado City, Ariz., Shirlee Draper was taught never to speak to anyone in law enforcement, because they were not her friends.

Her father and other adults would talk about being dragged out from under their beds during raids of polygamous communities, she said, fueling an “intense fear of outsiders."

“All of them were kidnappers,” Draper said, “because we knew that was a fate we could suffer.”

Draper shared her story Monday with members of the Utah Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, which voted unanimously to endorse a bill that would effectively decriminalize polygamy among consenting adults.

She testified alongside the bill’s sponsor, Spanish Fork Republican Sen. Deidre Henderson, who argued to her Senate colleagues that the state’s current law classifying polygamy as a felony is unenforceable absent other crimes.

And rather than eliminate polygamy, Henderson said, the state’s laws have created “a full-blown human rights crisis” in which victims of abuse and fraud are afraid to come forward, and in which otherwise law-abiding citizens are labeled as criminals.

“The people that I have spoken with long to feel part of society,” Henderson said. “They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens. They feel like Utah has legalized prejudice against them. They want to be honest people, but feel like they have to lie or teach their children to lie about their families in order to stay safe.”

Draper, who works as a victim advocate, said she has encountered cases of abuse and violence involving individuals from a variety of familial and religious backgrounds. While those crimes are seen as tangential, she said, polygamous families are assumed to be engaging in illicit acts.

“No one has ever dared say," she added, “that it’s the family structure that causes those abuses.”

But several members of the public, including former polygamists, spoke against SB102 during Monday’s hearing.

Easton Harvey, with the anti-polygamy Sound Choices Coalition, said criminalization is a social policy for all of Utah. And the reason that members of a polygamous community are afraid to report crimes is not because they’ll be charged as criminals by outsiders, he said, but because of the fear of being ostracized from within or subject to divine punishment.

“The primary reason they do not report crimes is because of a weaponized God,” Harvey said, “because of weaponized scripture, because they’re trying to protect their priesthood.”

Angela Kelly, Sound Choices Coalition director, compared polygamy to organized crime and slavery. To ease the criminal penalties, she said, would encourage more people to live that way.

“To bring it down to an infraction, you’re essentially saying this is an OK lifestyle,” Kelly said. “And it might be for 10 people, but we’re talking about society as a whole.”

Ora Barlow, who was raised in a polygamous community, said she felt free when the leaders of her church were imprisoned and prosecuted. She realized that all her life she had been thought of as property, she said, but the law was on her side.

"The law is there for a reason,” Barlow said. “And it’s for people like me who feel trapped.”

If the SB102 becomes law, polygamy among consenting adults would be reduced to an infraction — a level below many traffic offenses. Infractions in Utah carry no jail time. Punishments can be fines of up to $750 and community service.

Current Utah law makes polygamy a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. It can be up to 15 years if the defendant is also convicted of fraud, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic abuse or human smuggling or trafficking. Those enhancements would be left intact.

The committee’s backing of Henderson’s measure was seemingly assured. All but one of the panel’s members had already signed on as co-sponsors of SB102 ahead of Monday’s hearing. And the remaining lawmaker, West Valley City Republican Sen. Dan Thatcher, at one point told audience members that he was not interested in hearing how bad polygamy is, because “that’s not going to make me vote against this bill.”

“This is better than what we are doing now, and I have not heard a single person bring forward a better solution,” he said. “Sometimes doing nothing is a better solution. In this case, I think [Henderson has] brought us something that is better than doing nothing.”

The bill now moves to the full Senate.