SALT LAKE CITY -- Polygamy wouldn't be a felony crime in Utah for the first time in 85 years under a bill that passed the Legislature on Friday and appears to be supported by the governor.
Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for the proposal that supporters said will allow the 30,000 or so people living in the state’s polygamous communities to come out of the shadows and report abuses such as underage marriage by other polygamists without fear of prosecution.
“It seems so surreal, you’re so used to it not being this way,” said Joe Darger, a Utah polygamist who has three wives.
Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has indicated he will likely sign the proposal that makes polygamy between consenting adults an infraction, like a traffic offense, that carries no possible jail time.
“This one has overwhelming support, though it's not without some controversy,” Herbert said during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah on Thursday. "Eliminating it from being a felony to a lesser offense is probably warranted."
Some former members of polygamous groups have said that essentially decriminalizing the practice could embolden abusers.
The Legislature “is jumping off a ledge without looking at the landing,” said Ryan Fisher, a spokesman for the anti-polygamy group Sound Choices Coalition. The bill got approval from the full Legislature after a final procedural vote in the Senate Friday.
The belief that plural marriage brings exaltation in heaven is a legacy of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The mainstream faith abandoned the practice in 1890 under pressure from the U.S. government and now strictly forbids it, but it has persisted.
Those who practice it have one legal marriage and multiple “spiritual wives.” The TV show “Sister Wives" chronicles the lives of one man and his four wives.
The Utah attorney general has publicly declined to prosecute otherwise law-abiding polygamists for years, but the “Sister Wives” family left the state shortly after going public, saying they were afraid of prosecution. They later lost an attempt to overturn the polygamy law in court.
The Republican sponsoring the proposed change, Sen. Deidre Henderson, has argued that notorious polygamous leaders such as Warren Jeffs have “weaponized” state law to keep followers from interacting with the outside world or going to police. Henderson's proposal still includes harsher punishments for crimes linked to polygamy, such as coerced marriage and sexual abuse.
Jeffs is now serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered plural wives.
Fears of the outside world were real for Alina Darger, one of Joe Darger’s wives. As a teenager, she was afraid to tell police about a stranger who exposed himself to her and a friend.
“I was afraid if I did they’d come to the house and see my dad had two wives and take us away,” she said. Now the head of a nonprofit outreach group called Cherish Families, Alina Darger said the legal change will help her connect polygamous communities to services ranging from child welfare to student loans.
“I deserve to be able to call on law enforcement,” she said. “I deserve the same rights as other people.”