Bill To Decriminalize Polygamy Passes Utah Senate
Senate bill 102 would decriminalize the practice of polygamy in Utah. The bill’s sponsor said it will help people who want to leave polygamy, but advocates for those seeking to escape the lifestyle have said it would allow abusers to operate with impunity.
An estimated 30-thousand people practice polygamy in Utah. Tonia Tewell, whose group Holding Out HELP assists people leaving polygamous situations, said the idea of decriminalizing it strikes fear in the hearts of those who want out.
"I have client after client after client who are in precarious situations of abuse happening as we speak that are communicating with me,” Tewell said. “And they are petrified when this goes through that their perpetrators are just going to feel like, 'See? Now I can do anything I want.’"
Tewell said her nonprofit group serves between 150 and 250 clients a year.
The bill has been approved by the state Senate, and is pending in the House. The bill’s author, Republican Senator Deidre Henderson, said the law is rarely enforced and serves to "push polygamous families out of the mainstream."
Tewell said she founded her group after encountering someone who left a polygamous family and had nowhere else to go.
"We serve primarily people who are leaving polygamy with all the resources necessary to get back on their feet,” Tewell said. “But we also do serve people who are living inside of these communities. Most of the time that has to do with therapy, and sometimes food and toiletries when they don't have enough for their family."
Polygamy was officially ended by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890. LDS Church officials have declined to comment on the bill. Despite the official disavowal, Tewell said many who practice plural marriage still invoke early church canons to legitimize the lifestyle.