A coalition of politicians, religious leaders and civil rights activists are urging Utahns to pass Amendment C on the ballot to remove old wording in the state constitution that they say still allows slavery as a punishment for crime.
“This is about righting a wrong,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the only Black woman in the Legislature, who persuaded lawmakers to unanimously approve putting Amendment C on the ballot.
Even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a fairly rare move to directly support a ballot measure during the news conference at the state Capitol by the Utah Coalition to Abolish Slavery.
“This outdated language is offensive to all of us,” said Juan Becerra, manager of the church’s government and community relations. “And there is no compelling reason for this to remain in our constitution. And we fully support the removal of this through the amendment.”
At issue is language nearly identical to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1865, that was copied into the Utah Constitution at statehood in 1896.
The Utah version says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within this State.”
Hollins says that seems to make slavery still possible as a punishment for crime — and she wants any possibility of slavery removed.
Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, the Senate sponsor of the legislation that created Amendment C, said the 14th Amendment nationally essentially fixed that problem in the U.S. Constitution. He, Hollins and others find retention of the words banning slavery “except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” offensive.
The amendment would remove them.
“I was shocked that it hadn’t already been done,” Anderegg said.
Hollins said Amendment C is part of a national movement to remove similar language from all state constitutions, and eventually from the 13th Amendment itself. Colorado passed a similar amendment in 2018, and Nebraska has one on its ballot this year. She also said the amendment will not interfere with current operations of the state corrections system.
“Until we remove this language from our constitution, we are not all equal,” said Tamu Smith, a Black woman who hosted the news conference.
“This is a no-brainer,” Anderegg said about passing the amendment. “Our documents matter, and this puts into practice the way that I feel we are as a society.”
Imam Shuaib-ud Din, director of religious affairs at the Utah Islamic Center, said passing the amendment would show that Utahns are “ready to recognize and acknowledge our mistakes … and we are ready to rectify and do whatever needs to be done for the future.”
Steven Bell, a University of Utah professor of recreation therapy who is Black, said, “Removing this language from the document that holds the guiding principles of Utah is one of many steps making Black people feel less threatened” here.
Loki Mulholland read a statement from Sheri and Steve Orton, whose ancestors once owned a slave in Utah and their extended family recently provided a headstone on his long-unmarked grave.
“As it was our responsibility as a family to do this,” the statement said, “it is now the responsibility of every Utahn to unite now and finally abolish the remainder of slavery in our state.”