SALT LAKE CITY -- Under a new law signed late Tuesday night by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert over objections from plural families, polygamists would face harsher punishments if they are convicted of other crimes such as domestic abuse or fraud.
The measure passed by one vote in the final minutes of Utah’s legislative session following several dramatic hearings on the topic and a protest rally in which the family from the TV reality show “Sister Wives” and several hundred others spoke out against what they said were attempts to infringe on their rights to live plural marriages.
Joe Darger, a Utah man who has three wives and helped organize the rally, said he and others are considering a legal challenge to a law that he says that only creates more fear among polygamists already wary of government officials.
“This is clearly unconstitutional. This clearly targets one group of people,” said Darger. “It’s absurd that in this day and age that our speech, freedom of religion and ability to do what we want in our bedroom is being policed by the state of Utah.”
Parker Douglas of the Utah Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday the law doesn’t change the office’s long-standing policy that they won’t go after law-abiding polygamists.
He said his office worked with legislators on revisions to the language that describes what a bigamy offense is to protect the state against future constitutional challenges after Kody Brown and his wives from the “Sister Wives” show sued over the constitutionality of Utah’s unique polygamy law.
The Browns won in federal court, but the case was thrown out by appeals court judges who found the Browns couldn’t sue because they were never prosecuted. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the Brown’s case.
Douglas said his office didn’t ask for the increased penalties, but he said he understood the thinking. It merely recognizes the historical evidence of such crimes being committed in some polygamous groups, such as Warren Jeffs’ sect on the Utah-Arizona border, Douglas said.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. Eleven members of the group were charged last year with food stamp fraud and money laundering. Nine of them have taken plea deals and one had his case dismissed.
“If there is somebody under the guise of a polygamous marriage or a sham polygamous community who are engaged in sex trafficking and human trafficking.... we think that’s probably a higher grade felony,” Douglas said.
The law increased the maximum penalty to 15 years, up from five, for polygamists who are also convicted of fraud, sex abuse, domestic abuse, human trafficking or human smuggling.
The law includes safe harbors for people leaving a polygamous marriage, reporting abuse or protecting a child.
Gov. Herbert signed the legislation because it narrows the bigamy statute and because of the safe harbors that provide protection for people leaving polygamy, said Hebert’s spokesman Paul Edwards.
Utah’s current polygamy law is already stricter than laws in other states because it bars married people from living with a second purported “spiritual spouse” even if the man is legally married to just one woman.
The new law changes the language to say that someone is breaking the law if they “purport” to be married to a second spouse and are living with that person. Before, prosecutors needed only to prove one or the other.
Darger said he’s already received numerous phone calls today from polygamists with questions.
“Are we purporting if we’re on Facebook sharing our family photos?” Darger said. “This put a lot of questions in how we actually live our lives and claim who we are.”
There are an estimated 30,000 polygamists in Utah. They believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven - a legacy of the early Mormon church. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly forbids it.
The Mormon church didn’t lobby for the bill but supported the premise.
“When it comes to laws governing polygamy, the church’s primary interest is in looking after potential victims of such associations,” said spokesman Eric Hawkins in a statement. “The church is concerned that reducing the perceived seriousness of this criminal activity sends the message that such abuses are not serious criminal offenses.”
During one of the debates about the bill, the sponsor, Republican Rep. Michael Noel, who is Mormon, revealed that his great-grandfather was jailed for being a polygamist and he’s irritated that today’s polygamists refer to themselves as Mormons.
“They’ve hijacked my religion and I actually resent that,” Noel said in February.