"Polygamy doesn't get prosecuted," Cooper told the House Judiciary Committee. "People are getting away with it."
Cooper testified in support of HB99, which would amend Utah's bigamy statute to focus more on polygamists.
After 2½ hours of testimony and debate, the committee voted to hold the bill. There was discussion of whether to prevent prosecutors from filing bigamy charges unless they also charged that person with sex abuse, human trafficking or fraud, but representatives wanted to research the implications of that before advancing HB99.
Bigamy would remain a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, but the bill would amend the bigamy statute to clarify that women can be prosecuted for bigamy, too. It also specifies that one is guilty of bigamy if, knowing the other person is already married, the offender "purports to marry and cohabitates with the other person."
Current state law allows for prosecution of someone who meets one of those two criteria, and critics of it have said that means unmarried couples who live together could face prosecution.
The discussion was not on having more than one wife as much as it was on sex abuse. Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, the bill's sponsor, started his presentation by accusing polygamous sects of widespread child sex trafficking. He referred to those sects as "cartels" and said he wants to give the Utah attorney general's office more power to pursue them.
Noel also sought to pre-empt suggestions that the penalty for polygamy be lessened, saying that if any legislator wants to reduce the penalty for anything that inherently leads to sex abuse: "I would question you judgment, and I would question your character." Some legislators asked how a bill focused on bigamy would help prosecute more serious offenses.
"It seems like using the bigamy law to go after those other crimes, seems like a roundabout way," Rep. Lowry Snow said.
Narrowing the definition of bigamy, said Assistant Attorney General Parker Douglas, would prevent legal challenges like those launched by the family from "Sister Wives," but it would allow prosecutors to target the tool polygamous sects use to hold power over girls and women.
Rep. Ken Ivory had trouble with the idea of penalizing people in such marriages and not going after someone who does the same thing but doesn't purport to be married.
"If they cohabitate and the only difference is they purport to be married, that's a crime?" Ivory asked Parker.
"That's correct," Parker replied.
That answer evoked laughs from the polygamists who lined the wall, waiting for a chance to testify. They agreed that violent crime should be prosecuted but said they shouldn't all be lumped in with abusive sects.
Enoch Foster, who lives in San Juan County with two wives and soon perhaps a third he said is interested in joining the family was never abused in the polygamous household he grew up in, he said, but he was sexually abused by a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"This bill does nothing but discriminate," Foster said.
One of his wives, Lillian Foster, said she did not grow up in polygamy, but in a household with alcoholism where she was abused. Friends were abused in their households, too.
"This bill doesn't help," she said. "It targets my freedom of speech. I can't say I'm married because my husband already has a wife."
Jenn Oxborrow, with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, opposed the bill. She said her organization has been trying to reach more domestic violence victims in plural families.
"Voting for this bill will make a serious chilling effect for survivors, especially for plural families," Oxborrow said.