Many believed it would just be a matter of time.
Same-sex marriage has been legalized across the nation and other alternative relational forms such as polyamory and unmarried cohabitation have become more normalized. Amidst this, Utah Governor Gary Herbert decriminalized polygamy in his state by signing Senate Bill 102 into law on March 28th to very little fanfare. It went into effect May 12, 2020. Only 3 Representatives voted against the bill and it passed unanimously in the Utah Senate to very little debate or discussion by lawmakers. It seemed to be uncontroversial.
This bill does not make polygamy legal. It cannot as Article III of the Utah Constitution affirms “polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.” S.B. 102 goes right up to the line though. It reduces polygamy among consenting adults from a crime – previously a third-degree felony – to an infraction. The legal punishment for an “infraction” in Utah is the possibility of paying a fine (no more than $750) and/or performing community service. Legal analyst have equated S.B. 102’s punishment to that of a parking ticket.
In essence, Utah law forbidding polygamy has had all its teeth removed. While the Utah Constitution says emphatically that polygamy is “forever prohibited” it could reasonably be argued that this new law declares it tolerable.
The language used to pass this bill, not surprisingly, is like that so effectively employed by gay marriage advocates in their efforts. Republican State Senator Deidre M. Henderson, who introduced the bill, told the Salt Lake Tribune in February that current law against polygamy is “a human rights crisis … and we can’t look the other way.” She added, “We need to stop marginalizing a whole group of people in our state.” Henderson lamented that even though this law decreases the state penalty for polygamists to almost nothing, it’s “going to take some time to help them feel comfortable” as if laws are about enhancing people’s feelings.
Utah’s Libertas Institute called S.B. 102 the answer to “Utah’s unique human rights crisis.” Charlotte Erickson, a polygamist wife contends, with language taken right out of the gay and lesbian rhetorical handbook, “We can’t be ourselves in public, we have to be something we’re not. And we’re just a normal healthy family.”
Prior to the passage of this law, The Salt Lake City Tribune explained the “Utah attorney general’s office and county prosecutors already have a policy of not prosecuting otherwise law-abiding polygamy.” So in terms of law, there really was and is now no practical legal penalty for polygamous marriage. The Mormon Church however is much stricter, excommunicating polygamous members. Its leaders changed course on the matter for political, not theological, reasons. They deemed polygamy contrary to Church doctrine on October 6, 1890 so that the Utah territory might be granted statehood.
The result of S.B. 102 is that not only will polygamy not be prosecuted in any real sense, but Utah law effectively reflects the belief of the State that there is no real problem with it at all.
Photo from Channel 4