A legislative proposal taking aim at already-illegal polygamy in Utah drew hundreds of plural families—including reality TV stars—to protest on the steps of the State Capitol Friday in the rain, chanting they are “families, not felons.”
Group representatives took turns speaking under a tent to say their marriages were healthy and consensual, and that they are unfair targets of prejudice by lawmakers.
“The reason we live in fear is because of the laws,” said Christine Brown, one of Kody Brown’s four wives in the TLC show Sister Wives, joining other speakers in cautioning that further restricting polygamy would send more families underground and allow what they said were rare abusive relationships to continue.
But inside the Capitol, several women who said they escaped from polygamous sects said the opposite at a Friday news conference, arguing polygamy is inherently harmful and abusive for women and children.
The bill from Mike Noel, R-Kanab, would criminalize living with multiple people and purporting to be married to them. It also aims to strengthen penalties for polygamists who commit violent or fraudulent crimes, making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and up to $10,000 if they abuse, smuggle, rape or traffic people.
Noel rejected the notion that the majority of polygamous relationships are healthy.
“To me it seems an abusive situation,” he said, adding that in most cases, the practice is “basically religious indoctrination.”
His proposal would grant exemptions to children and teens fleeing plural relationships; those who leave polygamous marriages because they’re in danger and those who are trying to protect children.
Kristyn Decker, who left the Utah-based Apostolic United Brethren, (AUB) said the law is sorely needed.
“I have sisters who were all but forced into marriages,” she said. “The pain, anguish and despair that i witnessed in my own life is something women and children should not have to endure.”
A half-dozen other women from AUB and other groups also spoke of abuse by husbands and family members, saying they often saw first cousins wed, with the brides as young as 15 years old.
The Supreme Court effectively upheld a ban on polygamy after the Browns sued, saying it was discriminatory. In January, the court said it wouldn’t hear the case.
Noel’s bill must now win approval from the House, Senate and governor to become law.