- Associated Press - Friday, February 19, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah polygamists came to the state Capitol on Friday to tell lawmakers that a proposal to revive a ban on living with multiple spiritual wives would wrongly keep families like theirs in the shadows.

Though the bill still moved forward, its sponsor softened the possible penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor and said that it wouldn’t change the state’s long-standing policy against prosecuting consenting adult polygamists.

Sponsor Rep. Mike Noel of Kanab, a Republican, said the measure is designed to narrow the definition of the crime and halt a lawsuit filed by the family from the reality show “Sister Wives.”

Kody Brown and his four wives scored a legal victory in 2013 when a judge declared key parts of the state’s bigamy law unconstitutional, essentially decriminalizing polygamy.

That decision was cheered by advocates who say it lets people from secretive communities go public without fear of being thrown in jail or having their children taken away.

Prosecutors, though, say the polygamy ban needs to stay on the books to strengthen their hand when they go after polygamists like jailed leader Warren Jeffs who commit abuses like underage marriage or fraud. Jeffs is serving a life sentence for marrying underage girls he considered wives.

Noel also pointed out that the Utah constitution forbids polygamy, which was a requirement for it to become a state in 1896.

The belief that polygamy brings exaltation in heaven is a legacy of the early Mormon church, and several state lawmakers considering the bill during a committee hearing Friday said they are descended from polygamists.

The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.

There are still about 30,000 people who live in polygamous communities in Utah. Several have publicly pushed for de-criminalizing plural marriage, sometimes using similar legal arguments as advocates for same-sex marriage.

“It’s unconstitutional to say I can’t live and love and cohabitate with whoever I choose, so why are we revisiting this?” said Brady Williams, who has five wives. “Let’s just leave it alone.”

The bill passed out of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice with an 8-to-1 vote, but Noel said he’ll likely again revise it to make polygamy a less serious misdemeanor before it goes to the full House for a vote.

That’s good news for polygamy advocate Anne Wilde, who was a plural wife until the death of her husband and has long sought to change polygamy’s status as a felony.

The proposal must also be approved by the state Senate and signed by the governor before it becomes law.

If it passes, it’s unclear whether it will have the intended effect on the “Sister Wives’ lawsuit, which is now before a federal appeals court.

Lawyer Jonathan Turley represents the Browns and has said that any law that keeps polygamous families from living together would likely violate their constitutional rights.

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