- Associated Press - Friday, March 10, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - In the dying embers of Utah’s 2017 legislative session, lawmakers narrowly passed a polygamy bill that adds harsher penalties for people convicted under the state’s bigamy law if they’re also convicted of other crimes such as domestic abuse.

The measure, which must get approval from Gov. Gary Herbert, was opposed by polygamists who said it unfairly targets their families and will discourage people witnessing crimes like fraud or abuse from speaking out.

Herbert’s office said Friday that the governor didn’t have comment.

The proposal appeared dead heading into lawmakers’ final day Thursday, but legislators in the Senate resurrected it, passing it 15-14, five minutes before midnight.

Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, said, during the discussion, that the bill was crafted and requested by the attorney general’s office to prevent a “constitutional challenge” to state law. He said those in good families won’t be prosecuted, but that it could help authorities target abusive leaders.

“This is to focus on a few of those people that cause big problems and make it difficult for those who want to leave,” Van Tassell said. “None of us are intent on seeing children ripped away and put in foster care.”

The attorney general’s office didn’t immediately return request for comment Friday.

Utah’s current polygamy law, which survived a recent court challenge from the family on TV’s “Sister Wives,” bars married people from living with a second purported “spiritual spouse” even if the man is legally married to just one woman, making it stricter than anti-bigamy laws in other states.

Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, questioned the need for the measure and asked what the state was trying to do. He said he’s worried the measure will drive polygamists underground to hide their actions, making it even more difficult for people who want out of the groups to get out.

“What we are really introducing here is a fear of government,” Davis said.

Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, echoed the concern. She opposed the measure because she said it gives polygamist leaders more chances to manipulate and coerce members of the group.

The measure shields from prosecution anyone who leaves a polygamous relationship because they feared harm or tried to help a child who might be harmed.

Utah state prosecutors say they generally leave polygamists alone but that the state law is needed to pursue polygamists for other crimes. Only 10 people have been charged with violating the law between 2001 and 2011.

The federal government recently cracked down on a polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border run by imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs. Eleven members of the group were charged with food stamp fraud and an Arizona jury found the twin towns guilty of discriminating against people who aren’t members of the dominant religious sect.

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 measure led to interesting debates during the session. The bill’s 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.

During the session, the family on the TV reality show “Sister Wives” and several hundred others held a rally to protest the measure and other attempts that infringe on their rights to live plural marriages.

Joe Darger, a Utah man who has three wives and helped organize the rally, said he was encouraged by discussions during the session that helped educate people that not all polygamists are Warren Jeffs.

But he said he was angry and disappointed at the bigotry and ignorance he saw that pushed the bill through. He challenged the attorney general’s office to use the law to prosecute abuse like they say it will be used.

“This is really about control of a religious majority over a religious minority,” Darger said.

Brenda Nicholson, who five years ago left the polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border with her husband and six kids, approves of the measure. She concedes it likely won’t change much, but she likes the message and said it gives authorities another tool to prosecute underlying issues often found in polygamy.

“If I honestly believed it was consenting adults choosing that lifestyle, I could see it differently,” Nicholson said. “It’s such an abusive and controlling situation that it can’t be ignored.”

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