SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - About 150 polygamy advocates and their children gathered in Utah’s Capitol Monday evening to protest a lawmaker’s proposal that would make polygamy a felony crime again.
The group held signs that read, “Families not felons,” ”I love all my moms,” and “Cohabitation should not be a felony,” as polygamist advocates gave speeches defending their families.
They want lawmakers to let stand a 2013 court ruling that essentially de-criminalized polygamy in Utah.
Enoch Foster, who said he lives near Moab in eastern Utah with his two wives, said making polygamy a felony crime violates the constitutional rights of consenting adults who choose that lifestyle.
“I cannot say that’s my wife. That is a violation of my freedom of speech. It’s a violation of my freedom of association. It’s a violation of my freedom of religion,” Foster said.
Foster and organizer Joe Darger said keeping polygamy a felony drives those communities underground and makes people afraid reporting crimes like underage marriage because they could be prosecuted themselves.
Former polygamous wife Kristyn Decker was one of about a dozen counter-protesters who rallied nearby, arguing that harms associated with polygamy, like underage marriage, mean it should stay illegal.
Decker, who founded the group Sound Choices Coalition, said she wants lawmakers to take more action to protect women and children.
Supporters of the bill say that it will narrow the law by specifying that someone must both purport to be married to a second spouse and live with them to be breaking the law. Previously, either action alone was a violation.
The Utah House passed the bill last week, and it will next be considered by the state Senate.
Sponsor Republican Rep. Mike Noel of Kanab says that change should be enough to nullify a lawsuit filed by the polygamous family from the reality TV show “Sister Wives.” Kody Brown and his four wives won a legal victory when a federal judge ruled in their favor in 2013 and struck down key parts of the state’s bigamy law as unconstitutional, but the state appealed at the case is now before a federal appeals court.
Noel has said that Utah banned polygamy in its constitution, but he’s not looking to change prosecutors’ widespread, longstanding policy against prosecuting consenting adult polygamists. Instead, the state focuses on those who commit other crimes, like abuse or fraud.
Cases like those have been in the spotlight recently as authorities go after the group led by Warren Jeffs on multiple fronts. Courts in Utah and Arizona are now considering child labor, discrimination and food stamp fraud cases against members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The FLDS is just one of several different groups in Utah that practice polygamy. There are a total of about 30,000 people who live in polygamous communities in Utah.
The belief that polygamy brings exaltation in heaven is a legacy of the early Mormon church. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.
Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.
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