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Fighting To Make Groups Healthier: Proponents Say Decriminalizing Polygamy Would Help Root Out Abuse

Illustration of three brides and one groom figurine on a wedding cake.
Renee Bright
The Utah Senate unanimously passed a bill to decriminalize polygamy.

A bill to decriminalize polygamy for consenting adults unanimously passed the Utah Senate Tuesday. Critics say it would make it harder for people to leave polygamous communities. But supporters of the bill, like Lindsay Hansen Park, say it will bring polygamy out of the shadows and help root out abuses.

Park is host of the podcast “Year of Polygamy,” which focuses on Mormon fundamentalism.

She spoke with KUER’s Elaine Clark about what differences she thinks the bill could make in a state that has a complicated legal history with polygamy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elaine Clark: Could you start by speaking briefly about Utah's history with polygamy in the law?

Lindsay Hansen Park: You can't separate the history of Utah as a state without talking about polygamy. There was a time that polygamy was technically legal under the Utah Territorial Legislature. And then, of course, as the practice got more notoriety, the federal government criminalized it. So Mormons had to make a lot of compromises. And in 1890, they officially abandoned the practice. A lot of people don't realize that the statehood of Utah was dependent on Mormons abandoning the practice of polygamy.

EC: Jumping ahead to today, there are anti-polygamist groups that have been very vocal about their opposition to this current bill. Talk about the abuses — what you've called the "true horrors" that can result from the doctrines.

LHP: There are communities in Utah that live every day under really oppressive situations. You know, they are under age marriages, forced marriages, incest, abuse. All of these things are happening right under our noses. You have a lot of victims that have come out of these communities with a lot of pain, a lot of trauma, and they don't have justice.

But I have to make it clear that just because it's a polygamous group does not mean that there are forced marriages or underage marriages. Some groups practice these things, and some don't. What I would pin it on is the ones that have the most heinous, horrific crimes, like the [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], are groups that have been isolated, self-isolated, or forced isolation from the outside world. And so one of the reasons why I am supporting decriminalization is I believe that we see the worst abuses ... in the groups that are the most isolated … the ones that feel the most persecuted and have the most fraught relationships with outsiders. 

Polygamy has been criminalized for decades and decades, and I think that we can see on the historical record that it's only pushed the practice further underground. They're taught from an early age that if they come forward and they get help, that they're putting not just their entire family in jeopardy, but their entire community in jeopardy. And so a lot of people don't get help. They don't trust outsiders. They don't trust the government. And for good reason. There's been a lot of judgment and stereotypes and misunderstandings about these communities. 

EC: What are you hearing from the polygamous communities about the bill?

LHP: There are good, honest people just following their religion that are not sexually abusing anyone, that are not forcing people into marriage. Those are the people that I think are concerned, because while the law for decriminalization, this law is a good start, it also has what we call enhancements to the crime. So what that means is if a monogamist sexually abuses their child, they get slapped with the regular penalties for sexual abuse. If a polygamist does it, they get an enhanced sentence. And there's a lot of fear right now in fundamentalist communities that this bill is a way to sort of trick them into more penalties. Because like I said, there's a deep distrust of the government. 

But for the most part, the majority of educated fundamentalists that have a lot of resources, polygamists that are open, they're supporting this bill. Because the horrible things that Warren Jeffs perpetrated on his people and that whole system, shocked and horrified, not just the rest of the world, but especially fundamentalists because they have to live with the impact. They get lumped in with this. Everybody thinks there's just the FLDS and then the [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], and that's not true. There are over 480 expressions of Mormon groups, including the FLDS and the LDS. And they don't want abuse in their communities. So they're fighting to make their groups healthier and to integrate them more into society and that's something that I support and a lot of survivors of abuse in these communities support.

Elaine is the News Director of the KUER Newsroom
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