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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Polygamy emerges from the shadows

Two weeks ago the Utah State Senate, on a vote of 29-0, effectively decriminalized polygamy among consenting adults by reducing penalties to a maximum fine of $750 and community service.

Under current law, polygamy — typically involving a man who cohabits with and purports to marry more than one wife — is classified as a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. The bill would preserve harsher penalties for crimes linked to polygamy, including coerced marriages. This Wednesday it passed the Utah house.

Sen. Deidre Henderson, the bill’s lead sponsor, maintained that efforts to curb polygamy have been largely ineffectual and, because they have driven polygamous families into the shadows, in some cases have made matters worse, empowering notorious abusers like Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting girls he regarded as his wives.

What we in the general public were used to hearing about polygamous families in breakaway Mormon sects were stories similar to Jeff’s depredations. They were cause for concern. Kristyn Decker, who after many years got free from a polygamous sect, founded the Sound Choices Coalition to expose what it calls “Utah’s ‘Dirty Little Secret’ ” and help other victims. The coalition vehemently opposed the Utah Senate’s action: “The real narrative polygamists and their supporters are desperately trying to control, especially in today’s #MeToo climate, is that girls are commodities to be traded and bred often to a family member ... Sexualization of girls into child brides to propagate the relentless grip of polygamy is the real problem.”

More recently, because of two popular TV series — ”Big Love,” which ran on HBO from 2006 to 2013, and “Sister Wives,” which premiered on TLC in 2010 and is still going — the general public has been given a multi-faceted insight into polygamous families. The first was a fictionalized sit-com. The second is a reality show featuring Kody Brown, his four wives and 18 children.

Utah prosecutors hadn’t been enforcing the statute against polygamy except when other crimes were involved. However, when “Sister Wives” began airing, state officials denounced the Browns as committing crimes on TV every night and opened an investigation. The Browns moved to Nevada, but prosecutors said the move would not prevent them from prosecuting the family. The upshot was a case in federal court titled Brown v. Buhman (947 F.Supp.2d 1170 [2013]).

Because Brown had taken out a Utah marriage license only for one marriage (but he regards the other three marriages as equally valid religiously), Federal District Judge Clark Waddoups struck down the section of the Utah anti-polygamy statute that prohibits cohabitation. Among other reasons, he noted that Utah is not prosecuting non-polygamous residents who are cohabiting, and many are. On appeal, though, Waddoups’s decision was overturned, not on substantive grounds, but because the Browns lacked standing to sue. That was because Utah prosecutors had promised that they wouldn’t file charges against the Browns or anyone else solely on the grounds of polygamy. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, so legally that’s where things stand for now.

Polygamy has a special resonance among Mormons because, originally, Mormon doctrine required it. To gain Utah statehood, in 1890 the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints repudiated Doctrine and Covenants Section 132. But the developments I’ve just reported strike me as part of a more widespread rethinking of “normal” family structures. In next week’s column I’ll extend my discussion in that direction.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.