As early as 1862, the United States had deemed polygamy a crime. In Utah, where approximately two-thirds of the population is Mormon, plural marriages have been a felony since it became a state in 1896. Over 120 year laters, lawmakers in LDS state are creating hype over confirming the law; and practicioners are demanding their rights.
In 1879, the Supreme Court upheld the anti-polygamy to be constitutional. Beginning in 1880, federal officials began prosecuting those cases. The large communities of Mormons, or Latter-day Saints (LDS), were largely left alone. In places like Utah, polygamy was common and ignored. The church claims that the problems began when Mormons began spreading out across America. Non-church members saw the multiple-partner marriages as an abomination.
As they expanded, the church took a harder stance on polygamy, denying that it was still going on and trying to explain it. “The Book of Mormon identifies one reason for God to command it: to increase the number of children born in the gospel covenant in order to “raise up seed unto [the Lord]” (Jacob 2:30). Plural marriage did result in the birth of large numbers of children within faithful Latter-day Saint homes.”
Simultaneously admitting and defending their actions, they were telling the public that it had stopped. “…monogamy was advocated in the Church both over the pulpit and through the press. On an exceptional basis, some new plural marriages were performed between 1890 and 1904, especially in Mexico and Canada, outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law; a small number of plural marriages were performed within the United States during those years. In 1904, the Church strictly prohibited new plural marriages. Today, any person who practices plural marriage cannot become or remain a member of the Church.”
As the LDS church was struggling to present an acceptable and legal view to the public, polygamy was ongoing. Church members and often high-ranking leaders were accused of not only having multiple wives but taking underage brides and abuse. Women leaving the church were finally talking about their experiences.
You might expect all the scandals would top the practice, or at least force it further underground. Neither happened, starting in 2010 there has even been a reality television show about polygamy called Sister Wives.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert promoted his activities this week as he signed a bill that “keeps polygamy a felony.” Apparently the penalties have changed, becoming harsher, but that appears to be the only difference.
As he makes this highly flouted but non-momentous decision, the question is being asked, is the law even being enforced? The answer is convoluted.
Mormons who practice the lifestyle are open and uncompromising; they will continue despite the laws, as they always have. They and their attorneys say that if the marriages are between consenting adults, the state can’t do anything. Joe Darger, an outspoken opponent of the bill, has three wives. He dared officials to charge him with a crime.
Some lawmakers seem to agree, the state doesn’t pursue polygamists who haven’t committed other fraud or abuse as well. The recent bill was actually in response to a lawsuit that occured when they did try.
The Brown family, stars of the show Sister Wives, sued Lehi, Utah city police for looking into their multi-partner relationship. The court ruled in favor of the Browns, raising many questions about polygamy.
This led to the state of Utah and the courts defining the difference between polygamy and bigamy. While often used interchangeably, the law states that bigamy is a punishable crime, polygamy is not.
Polygamy is “defined as three or more people living together and one or more ‘spiritual’ marriages existing among that group.”
On the other hand, bigamy is the practice of one person having “multiple active marriage licenses.” The splitting of hairs in definitions would force prosecutors to prove that each polygamist has coinciding, active marriage licenses. This makes them a bigamist which is the actual felony.
Outside of that, it is simply seen as a lifestyle choice. A man can have as many wives as he wants as long as he only has one marriage license. When Federal Judge Clark Waddoups ruled for the Browns in 2013, he was essentially saying that the bigamy laws could not be applied to polygamists.
The new law confirms that the state agrees with his assessment. To be considered a bigamist, the offender now has to live with his extra spouse and claim marriage. Only one or the other was required prior to this.
Even the Sound Choices Coalition, which tries to discourage polygamous marriages, supports the new bill. They issued a statement saying;
“Polygamy is an antisocial, unsustainable practice that hurts many, so we are pleased that the state of Utah has taken action to demonstrate that it takes the abuses of polygamy seriously. Polygamy has enjoyed de facto decriminalization for decades, and polygamists will continue to be in no danger of prosecution unless they commit other crimes. We trust that the attorney general’s office will use this new law as it uncovers criminal activities within polygamist communities.”
The disconnect in the state was apparent through all of this. Polygamists continue to insist that any investigation or prosecution impedes their rights. Lawmakers prepare to take a hard stance, but it may only be for the cameras.
Is polygamy a choice or is it forced on women by an unrelenting religious community? Should it be allowed if all the people involved are adults? How hard is law enforcement working to tell the difference?
All those questions remain, the bill changes little. It is neglectful to avoid the fact that the practice encourages wrongful and unlawful behavior. Religious freedom does not allow child endangerment or abuse.
Utah doesn’t need to reinforce laws they have never followed in the first place. They need a serious discussion on the practice of polygamy and what it means for innocent women and children.