Polygamy opponents see lessening of penalties as latest sign Utah doesn’t want to help

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Members of "Tapestry of Polygamy" Rowenna Erickson, left, Laura Chapman, Vicky Prunty and Carmen Thompson held a news conference outside Gov. Michael Leavitt's office in 1998 to gain support in their fight to prosecute bigamy and related civil rights abuses in Utah.

Vicky Prunty was talking about “male privilege” long before it entered the lexicon of the #MeToo movement.

One of the 1998 founders of Tapestry Against Polygamy, Prunty, who had lived in a polygamous household, described plural marriage as empowering men and victimizing women. She wanted Utah to deter polygamy and provide a swath of resources to people leaving it.

She’s still waiting.

“Utah has always ignored the victims of polygamy,” Prunty said Friday, “and always ignored the women and children of polygamy.”

Count Prunty among the polygamy opponents who see Utah’s latest legislation, SB102, as only the most-recent setback for their cause. The bill, which passed both chambers of the Utah Legislature by overwhelming margins and Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to sign any day, reduces polygamy among consenting adults to an infraction — an offense less than many traffic tickets. The practice has been a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

(Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop, right, testifies Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing 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.

Polygamists who commit frauds and abuses can still be charged with a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. But polygamy foes have little faith in that clause. They see the lessening of the penalties for basic polygamy as proof the state doesn’t want to investigate polygamists in the first place.

“You’re basically giving men more rights to abuse their partners,” said a former plural wife who testified against SB102. She asked not to be quoted by name so as to not anger her family still in a polygamous group.

The woman testified that when she left the marriage, she wasn’t awarded alimony — just about $60 a month to support her four children — because she wasn’t a legal wife. (It was later upped to about $275 a month.) The house she had put her money toward belonged to a family trust, and she wasn’t able to recoup those assets.

SB102 did not address those issues.

“They’re not doing anything to fix the situation,” the woman said Friday. “They’re basically decriminalizing” the practice and preventing these men from going to jail.

She would like Utah to provide women like her with financial assistance. And she wants more help with attorneys for child custody cases and to pursue assets contributed to the family or a sect.

Polygamy opponents had enjoyed a string of political victories beginning with a 2011 decision by the Supreme Court of British Columbia that said polygamy was inherently harmful to women and children. Utahns against plural marriage cited the Canadian case in SB102 debates.

The state’s current law on polygamy was amended in 2017 to affirm polygamy as a felony. And, in 2019, the practice was added to the list of offenses for which crime victims could seek reparations from a state fund.

Utah has more resources for people leaving plural households than anytime in state history. Private organizations offer assistance with housing, mental health, access to lawyers and other services. There also has been an effort in the past 20 years to educate government agencies and private providers on the issues faced by people exiting polygamous groups.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shirlee Draper of Cherish Families speaks, seated next to Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, at the first public hearing for SB102, which would make polygamy between consenting adults an infraction, on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. On the screen at upper left is a photo taken in a plural marriage home showing seven of the family's children who have served in the military.

Shirlee Draper, director of operations for Cherish Families, an organization providing assistance to people exiting polygamy, used to be in a plural marriage. She testified in favor of SB102. She says the measure’s detractors calling for more services may not be aware of the resources that have developed.

Cherish Families and other social service providers receive government grants, Draper said, that requires they take a neutral, secular stance on polygamy and so-called Mormon fundamentalism. They must maintain client confidentiality, she said, and offer evidence-based programs.

“If they’re looking for a resource that says, ‘Yes, you’re right. You're broken. Let's put you on TV,’” Draper said, “that’s not a resource the state is going to fund.”

More social services would be great, said Doris Hanson, who grew up in the polygamous Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group or The Order, and hosts the online anti-polygamy program “Polygamy: What Love Is This?” But she believes Utah needs law enforcement dedicated to pursing crimes like sex abuse or fraud within polygamy.

Hanson is skeptical of assertions by SB102 supporters that people in plural households will now report those crimes.

“Their fear is threats from group leadership and a wrathful God rather than police coming to arrest them,” Hanson said. “Police haven’t arrested people for polygamy for decades.”

Prunty would like Utah to create a public service campaign deterring people from polygamy the same way it has pushed to prevent smoking or underage drinking. She fears that if Herbert signs SB102, Utah will not recognize polygamy as a social problem and that advocates like her will lose the validation that comes with working against something that is a felony.

Utah, she said, “never viewed polygamy as a crime against women or children or discrimination against women.”