Their marriages carried a felony charge punishable by up to five years in prison for most of Utah’s history.
But after a new law decriminalizing polygamy among consenting adults takes effect Tuesday, plural marriages are now considered an infraction — an offense less than some traffic tickets and a historic shift in how the state regards the practice.
The bill ran into some opposition during the legislative session among groups opposed to polygamy, who said the practice is inherently abusive to women and children and argued that the penalties should not be lessened. But Sen. Deidre Henderson, the bill’s sponsor, has said she hopes it will make victims of abuse and fraud less afraid to come forward in the future.
“The wall Utah built to keep people out of polygamy has been the very wall that’s been trapping them inside," the Spanish Fork Republican said in an interview Monday. "This bill is hoping to tear down that wall.”
Henderson stresses that the bill doesn’t make polygamy legal — it just removes the fear for otherwise law-abiding residents that they could be jailed and their children taken from them because of their religious practices.
And she notes that there are still penalties under the new law for polygamy in conjunction with crimes such as fraud, abuse, domestic violence and human smuggling, which would remain a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
SB102 is one of nearly 400 bills that take effect Tuesday, the default effective date for bills that passed during the 2020 legislative session. In some cases, new laws took hold earlier this year, while others won’t kick in for months.
Here’s a look at some of the major bills that took effect Tuesday:
Beginning Tuesday, health care facilities must begin disposing of fetal remains by cremation or burial after a miscarriage or abortion.
During this year’s legislative session, supporters of these new mandates said they would cement a woman’s right to determine how hospitals and other facilities handle fetal remains and ensure that the tissue is treated with dignity.
“This is not only better for pregnant women who lost children,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said earlier this year after the legislation passed. “This is better for our society.”
Critics, however, said it could traumatize women by forcing them to consider the disposition of fetal tissue as they are grieving the end of a pregnancy. SB67 also places an unfunded mandate on medical facilities to handle fetal remains in one of the two prescribed ways.
In recent years, fetal remains laws have emerged in states, including Indiana, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, and abortion rights advocates say these measures are intended to reinforce the legal personhood of the fetus.
License plate changes
The state is tightening its controls on vanity license plates to root out messages that disparage groups of people.
A license plate that read “DEPORTM” sparked social media controversy earlier this year and drew attention to the state’s process for reviewing and approving personalized plates.
Sen. Luz Escamilla’s bill, SB97, explicitly bans vanity plates that denigrate groups based on race, color, national origin, religion, age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, citizenship status or physical or mental disability. The legislation also prohibited denial of a personalized license plate request if the letters, numbers or combination refer to an official state symbol.
State officials had already prohibited plates that are “offensive to good taste and decency,” and the Division of Motor Vehicles has interpreted that language as a ban on disparaging messages.
However, The Salt Lake Tribune found the state in recent years had approved specialty plates that read “NEGROS,” “J3WBRNR” and “FÜHRER,” while rejecting applications for plates such as “COFFEE” and “MERLOT.”
Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said she sponsored the bill because the Utah Tax Commission, which oversees the state’s motor vehicles division, had requested additional clarity.
“It’s just more guidelines for the tax commission to work through the administrative process, which is pretty convoluted,” she said Monday.
Straight-ticket voting repeal
Utah voters no longer have the option of ticking a single box to support all the candidates from a single party on their ballot — meaning they’ll now need to consider and cast each vote individually.
The new law eliminating straight-party voting takes effect in this year’s Nov. 3 general election.
Rep. Patrice Arent, who is retiring at the end of her term, tried unsuccessfully to run the bill for years before HB70 gained approval this year during the last moments of the legislative session.
Supporters argue that topping the ballot with a partisan question has led to confusion among voters. Some think they have to check the box that corresponds to their party affiliation. Some believe they have completed their ballot by casting that vote despite failing to weigh in on nonpartisan races like ballot initiatives, school board members and judges. And others think they are registering for a particular party by marking it.
Arent, D-Millcreek, said Monday that she hopes the bill will lead to “more people voting in more races." And, she said, "I think they’ll know more about who they are voting for, which is an important thing.”
Before abolishing straight-ticket voting, Utah was one of just seven states that allowed it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Utah Inland Port Authority Board now has the ability to establish a community enhancement program to mitigate the impacts of the massive development project on nearby communities.
Escamilla, the bill’s sponsor, has characterized SB112 as an “incremental step” forward for those who live in the district that will be most affected by the development planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest side. She said Monday that the program could support the development of green space or parks, for example.
“The sky’s the limit on what you could do,” she said. “But the goal is that it’s a community-oriented way to do something as a counter to whatever impact the inland port will have in that area.”
The port is expected to increase truck, air and rail traffic, and opponents have long raised concerns about the potential effects of the 16,000-acre development on air quality and wildlife near the Great Salt Lake.
The bill ran into opposition among those who felt it lacked teeth and should have required the 11-member port authority to create a community mitigation program rather than simply allowed it to do so.
A spokeswoman with the port authority said Monday that the board’s strategic business plan identifies potential programs and policies related to community enhancement and mitigation. The board is scheduled to receive a briefing on that plan later this month — its first public meeting since October — and will vote on whether to approve it in June. After that, the board will start looking at the mitigation elements.
Newborn safe haven
Changes to the state’s “safe haven” law will permit parents to legally relinquish their newborns at a hospital up to 30 days after their birth.
Utah in 2001 instituted protections for people who leave their babies at a hospital, but the legal drop-off window was open for only 72 hours after a child’s birth. Arent sponsored this year’s bill to extend the safe haven immunities, arguing that some women aren’t even out of the hospital after 72 hours, and the effects of postpartum depression can far outlast that time frame.
Her bill, HB97, also sets aside $50,000 in state funding for training and education about the state’s provisions for relinquishing infants.
“This is not the kind of law that the average woman, when the baby comes, knows about unless we get the word out,” Arent said. “They don’t go to the Utah code and say, ‘What do we do?’ So this will give us some funding to do the publicity but also to do the education, which is important to get the word out.”
Arent said she sponsored her initial bill about 20 years ago after hearing horrifying stories about desperate women leaving their babies in dumpsters or restrooms. Supporters of the legislation said that 42 children have been safely relinquished by their parents since Arent’s original proposal passed in 2001.
The changes to the law, Arent said, “will save more lives" than the original proposal, giving mothers more options and infants a chance to be adopted by a loving family.
State analysts have estimated that extending the drop-off period to 30 days will result in four additional infants being relinquished each year.