Polygamy bill passes House panel after hearing that asks whether bill will help victims or perpetrators

(Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop, right, testifies Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee in favor of SB102 as Sen. Deidre Henderson, center, and Melissa Ellis, left, listen. The bill would make polygamy among consenting adults an infraction.

A Utah House committee gave a favorable recommendation Monday to a bill that would effectively decriminalize polygamy among consenting adults but made a change that would require the legislation to return to the state Senate.

At a hearing before the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, lawmakers voted to clarify that sexual battery committed in a plural household is a felony. The amendment, if approved by the full House, would mean SB102 will have to return to the Senate, where it passed earlier this month.

Under the measure, polygamy would be an infraction — an offense less than some traffic tickets — if the polygamists were otherwise law abiding. That created a debate Monday among former members of polygamous groups about whether the bill will protect consenting adults or abusers.

Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop, a former member of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, testified in favor of the bill. She told legislators that criminal penalties for polygamists taught people in plural families to fear law enforcement and not to report crimes.

“I am not in any way advocating for polygamy,” Jessop said. “I am making a stand against abuse, and I am standing for my people.”

The FLDS is led by Warren Jeffs, who is serving a prison sentence of life plus 20 years in Texas for sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives. There was discussion in the hearing of how FLDS members have secluded themselves in remote locations.

A Jeffs nephew, Ian Jeffs, testified against SB102. He said the FLDS has not secluded itself because it’s afraid of law enforcement but so that people can practice polygamy without scrutiny.

“Decriminalizing polygamy will only embolden the practice,” Ian Jeffs said.

Melissa Ellis left the polygamous Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group or The Order. She testified against the bill and said her 5- and 6-year-old daughters came to her saying they would marry the same man when they turn 14 and 15 — like their grandma and her sister did.

Ellis encouraged the Utah Legislature not to pass a new bill and to give anti-polygamy laws passed in 2017 and 2019 more time to work.

“Those bills," she said, “have helped the victims.”

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