Orgies appear to be legal in Utah, and other notes from polygamy bill hearing

In Tuesday's hearing on the latest polygamy bill, Assistant Utah Attorney General Parker Douglas went where few legislative proceedings have gone before.

"If they're simply people having, for lack of a better word, an orgy," Parker told the House Judiciary Committee, "that's not illegal."

The committee was considering HB99, which would amend the definition of bigamy in the state and permit amnesty for people leaving abusive polygamous relationships. The bill passed the committee 7-3 and will go to the Utah House of Representatives for consideration.

About an hour after the hearing, Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, and a supporter of decriminalizing polygamy, tweeted that Douglas had it wrong.

On Wednesday, Dan Burton, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, clarified that while adultery and fornication are still listed as misdemeanors in Utah, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas has negated those statutes.

"We don't prosecute them since Lawrence v. Texas," Burton said. "For whatever reason, the Legislature has chosen to leave them on the books anyway."

Why was anyone talking about orgies in a hearing about polygamy?

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, one of the no votes on HB99, was pressing Douglas about how the law treats unmarried people differently than polygamists. If someone "purports" to call two or more people your spouse, Ivory pointed out, and you're committing a felony; but single people can have all the sexual or life partners they want.

That's the same point polygamists have been making.

Joe Darger, who has three wives, introduced himself to the committee Tuesday as, "Joe Darger, purporting felon."

Having wives makes Darger eligible for five years in prison.

"But if I'm an adulterer, if I'm Hugh Hefner and I have a lot of women on the side," Darger told the committee, "that's no problem."

Ivory voted against the bill because it keeps polygamy at Utah's lowest grade of felony. He tried to amend the bill to make polygamy a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. Like HB99 sponsor Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, Ivory says the Utah Constitution requires the state keep polygamy a crime.

Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, tried to amend the bill to make polygamy a class A misdemeanor that could only be prosecuted as a secondary offense in conjunction with crimes such as abuse, human smuggling or fraud. That amendment was rejected, too.

So the bill that advanced says someone is guilty of bigamy, a third-degree felony, if they cohabitate with more than one person and "purports" to be married. The current statute only requires one of those criteria. The bill also creates the aforementioned amnesty, which legislators and others were calling "safe harbor" on Tuesday.

• Still "Escaping Polygamy"

As she did in a hearing last week, Jessica Christensen testified in favor of HB99 on Tuesday.

Christensen, 28, is one of the stars of the television show "Escaping Polygamy." She is a former member of the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group.

HB99 is "just tightening up a law that already exists," Christensen testified Tuesday. "The safe harbor is a gracious offer."

A film crew followed Christensen and her co-stars to last week's hearing, but neither the co-stars nor photographers were with her Tuesday.

• Gentleman in attendance

I don't know everyone who sat and listened to the hearing Tuesday, but I did see representatives of the Davis County Cooperative and the Apostolic United Brethren. There also were polygamists who don't have a church affiliation, such as the Dargers.

In two hearings on HB99, like in the discussions on a similar bill last year that failed to pass, the focus has been on the Davis County Cooperative and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The crimes of FLDS President Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas for crimes related to sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives, were mentioned a few times Tuesday.

There also was discussion of crimes and misdeeds committed by Kingstons. LuAnn Cooper, a former Kingston wife, testified again Tuesday in support of the bill.

Discussion of polygamists who are otherwise law abiding has been fleeting. However, Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, took a moment Tuesday to call Darger a "gentleman" who had been thoughtful during the discussions.


Twitter: @natecarlisle

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Luanne Cooper, left, a former member of the Polygamist Kingston clan and Jessica Christensen of the show "Escaping Polygamy" attend a hearing for HB99, a bill amending Utah's bigamy statute as it goes back to the House Judiciary Committee for another hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, sponsor of HB99, a bill amending Utah's bigamy statute, goes before the House Judiciary Committee for another hearing on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017.