Cristina Rosetti: Making polygamy a crime hasn’t helped its victims

On July 26, 1953, multiple branches of law enforcement entered Short Creek, a community built by polygamist Mormons on the border of Utah and Arizona.

Over the course of the afternoon, officials drove thirty-six men and eight women to the jailhouse in Kingman, Ariz., and 153 out of the 263 children in the town were taken from their homes. The cited crime was polygamy.

The 1953 raid, and previous legal actions meant to “save” members of polygamist communities, failed. Rather than protect vulnerable members of the community through legal action and prosecution, it instilled fear and led to increased isolation.

Following the raid, women lived in fear of losing their children, victims no longer felt safe turning to law enforcement to report crime, children did not receive necessary government resources and families carried the label “felon.” Taken together, the government created a system where polygamists increasingly distanced themselves from society. Like the 1953 raid, current polygamy laws are a failure that instill fear and create barriers.

Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), was born into this system. Once Jeffs took over the leadership of the FLDS in 2002, he began to harness the fear and isolation already present in the community to perpetuate and hide his crimes.

The legal status of polygamy was used to scare victims into silence. The raids became a weapon. Members of the community were taught that disclosing criminal activity would lead to arrests and loss of family. The law that was intended to protect women and children created an environment where reporting crime was inconceivable and secrecy was encouraged.

Jeffs was sentenced in 2006 and is currently serving a life sentence for accomplice rape. However, Jeffs was not the first or last man to weaponize the legal status of polygamy.

The status quo failed victims and it is time to try something new. This week, Utah state Sen. Deidre Henderson’s bill to amend polygamy laws in Utah was unanimously approved by the full body of the Senate.

Rather than approach polygamy as an issue of religious freedom or marriage equality, the bill takes the approach of harm reduction. Currently classified as a felony, polygamy under SB102 would be reclassified as an infraction for consenting adults. However, in cases where polygamy is involuntary or associated with other crimes (such as rape or domestic violence), it would remain a felony.

By lowering the criminal status of polygamy, fear of the government and need for isolation would no longer be a weapon. The passage of SB102 would offer victims greater safety in reporting crimes, the potential for increased prosecution of violent offenses and a more open relationship between polygamist communities and law enforcement.

I know women who were taught not to report crime, whether home invasion or rape. They were instructed that involving police would jeopardize their families’ safety. These women were victimized by their leaders because they came to believe the law wasn't intended to protect them.

I know women who were deterred from escaping harmful situations because they believed the outside world was scarier than any situation on the inside of their insular community.

I know women who, once they fled, faced discrimination in everything from employment to housing. Many, being outwardly marked as polygamist from their clothing, were unable to receive something as simple as a driver’s license or ID card.

The current law, aside from deterring vulnerable communities from reporting, creates a second-class citizenry in Utah.

As a scholar of Mormon fundamentalism, I have spent years with families that practice plural marriage. I have also listened to victims bravely explain how the law created violent and exploitative situations for minors and individuals trying to leave their community.

Utah achieved statehood in 1896 after its dominant religious group, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stopped practicing polygamy. For this reason, Utah is the state to watch when discussing reform. However, polygamy is not solely a Utah issue. Currently, Mormon polygamists live throughout the United States, as well as Canada and Mexico.

We tried making polygamy illegal and criminal. Nevertheless, the United States’ efforts to end the practice only drove it into the shadows, allowed men like Warren Jeffs to rise to power and contributed to increased victimization. With SB102 approaching a vote in the Utah House of Representatives, it is time for a conversation on the decriminalization of polygamy that centers harm reduction.

Cristina Rosetti

Cristina Rosetti, has a Ph.D., in religious studies from the University of California Riverside and is co-chair, Religion in America, American Academy of Religion - Western Region.