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Polygamy would again be a felony under a bill approved Wednesday by the Utah House of Representatives and sent to the Senate.
The state's bigamy law was invalidated by a 2013 court decision after the state was sued by a polygamous family from the TV show "Sister Wives." A proposal by Kanab Republican Rep. Mike Noel would revive the criminal penalty by changing the law and sidestepping the court's ruling.
Under the bill, cohabitation with multiple partners would not be sufficient for prosecution.
By inserting the word "and" into existing law, Noel said, the "Sister Wives" lawsuit could be made moot because a person charged with a felony would have to both live in a polygamous relationship and purport to be married to multiple spouses.
"Basically, it's a one-word bill," Noel said.
Members of the House approved the bill 59-16 after significant debate on the proper level of criminality to assign to bigamy.
The bill originally proposed to make bigamy a felony, then was amended in committee to a class A misdemeanor. On the House floor, West Jordan Republican Rep. Earl Tanner attempted to drop the penalty for bigamy to an infraction, but the House instead voted to lift the charge back up to the felony status of the original bill and current law.
Tanner, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that his ancestors practiced polygamy.
He said the criminal penalties attached to polygamy have the effect of turning polygamist communities into criminal organizations where victims of abuse and other crimes are silenced by fear of prosecution.
"My great-grandfather did not marry his nieces," Tanner said. "My great-grandfather did not rape 14-year-old girls. My great-grandfather did not send his male children out into the world without a good education. My great-grandfather did not abuse welfare programs."
Riverton Republican Rep. Dan McCay said he couldn't think of a reason why polygamy warrants felony punishment in Utah when it is listed as a misdemeanor in several other states.
The state was founded by polygamists who were driven into hiding because of laws against the practice, he noted.
"Here we are some 100-plus years later and we're debating whether or not this weighty matter still belongs to be treated as the persecuted matter that it was back at statehood," McCay said.
The Mormon church formally disavowed plural marriage in 1890, six years before Utah gained statehood.
Rep. Lavar Christensen, R-Draper, said there was "a very limited time" when polygamy could be justified, but the practice nowadays demands a serious criminal penalty.
He compared the 2013 court decision on polygamy to the recent action by the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriages, and said Utah needs to uphold its values and not acquiesce to judicial activism.
"An infraction is a slap on the hand," he said. "It's like a public disturbance disturbing the peace."
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, sponsored the amendment to bring polygamy back up to a felony level.
He said there is heightened sensitivity around the subject of bigamy because of Utah's historical roots, but the point of the bill is not to argue the merits of polygamy.
"I invite us to be very cautious about changing the course too dramatically too quickly," he said.