A bill to effectively decriminalize polygamy for consenting adults unanimously passed the Utah Senate Tuesday.
It would change consensual bigamy, which is rarely prosecuted in Utah, from a felony to an infraction — the equivalent of a traffic ticket.
The bill also downgrades bigamy “under false pretenses” from a second degree to a third degree felony. If someone is found guilty of bigamy along with crimes like child abuse and human trafficking, the bigamy charge remains a second degree felony.
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, is the bill’s sponsor. She argued that when consensual polygamy is a felony, it makes victims of crime afraid to report it.
“When we create a situation where there's a lot of isolation and marginalization and these isolated, insular communities, that's where a lot of the problems can really escalate,” Henderson said. “That's where the bad people can really have weaponized the law in order to keep their victims silent and isolated and in their control.”
However, during a hearing in the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice committee last week, opponents of the bill argued the current law helps polygamists leave their communities.
Ora Barlow was one of them. She said she was a child of a polygamist sect, which she eventually left.
“When I left, I realized that all my life I had been thought of as property,” Barlow said. “When I left I actually felt like the law was my friend and I didn’t belong to someone anymore. I think the law is there for a reason and it’s there for people like me who feel trapped.”
The bill now moves to the House of Representatives.
Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson