Utah Senate votes unanimously to decriminalize polygamy

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, speaks with polygamy advocate Anne Wilde after 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, Feb. 10, 2020. At rear are Joe and Valerie Darger.

Sen. Deidre Henderson stood on the Senate floor Friday and asked her colleagues to reconsider a decades-old state law classifying bigamy as a felony and making implied criminals of the state’s polygamous residents.

Rather than deter or eliminate polygamy, the Spanish Fork Republican said, the state code’s threat of harsh punishments had driven polygamous communities underground; cut families off from jobs, education and health care; and given rise to a subculture that gives predators “free rein to prey upon vulnerable people.”

“Their fear is genuine,” Henderson said. “But it has also been used as a weapon.”

The solution to those problems, she said, is increased social integration. And to that end, she asked Utah’s senators to support her bill reclassifying bigamy as an infraction, codifying the practice of the Utah attorney general’s office not to prosecute otherwise law-abiding polygamists, and effectively decriminalizing the practice of plural marriage among consenting adults.

An infraction, like a traffic ticket, carries no threat of imprisonment.

Without debate, the chamber voted unanimously in favor of Henderson’s legislation, SB102. An additional Senate vote is required before the bill moves to the House for consideration.

Before the vote, members of Senate leadership discussed the bill with news reporters.

St. George Republican Sen. Don Ipson, whose Senate district is located near the twin polygamist communities of Hildale and Colorado City, said that progress has been made there to reopen public schools and legitimize local law enforcement, but that more needs to be done.

Henderson’s bill, Ipson said, would help to put polygamous families on an equal footing with other residents.

“We need to ease the pain for that community," Ipson said. “I think it’s a human rights issue and we need to get to a better place with it.”

On Thursday, an anti-polygamy lobbyist stoked controversy around SB102 for her comments opposing the bill during a presentation to members of the House Democratic Caucus. The lobbyist, Angela Kelly with the Sound Choices Coalition, was comparing polygamy to slavery when she placed a label reading “slave” in front of Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the only black member of the Utah Legislature.

During a Friday news conference, Hollins said she was shocked by the comparison.

“She should know better," Hollins said. "We are living in a time when she should know that this is inappropriate.”