With only five minutes left in the legislative session, the Utah Senate approved a new anti-bigamy law by a margin of a single vote. It will only take Gov. Gary Herbert (R) a few seconds to sign it, if that is his decision.
Herbert hasn’t said which way he is leaning on the legislation.
Rather than wait for Herbert to make up his mind, the best advice to all those with multiple spouses from the “Sisters Wives” reality TV show cast, a real-life family of polygamists, is to get out of Utah now.
Another family — one man and his three wives — has vowed to never leave Utah.
“My concern is all this is going to do is drive the good polygamous people who don’t have those abuses more into hiding,” Meri Brown, a plural wife, told the Salt Lake Tribune, “and it’s going to make the people who do have those abuses just be able to do them even more.”
“It also classifies all polygamists as second-class citizens,” added her husband, Kody Brown.
Kody Brown is legally married not just to Meri, but to another woman, Robyn. He is “spiritually married” to Meri, and Janelle and Christine, who have all taken his last name.
The family lived discretely in Utah until 2010 when their lifestyle went public with the “Sister Wives” TV show. Lehi, Utah, police watch TV, too. They started a criminal investigation. The Browns pulled out of Utah and moved to Nevada to avoid any possibility of bigamy prosecution.
The Browns successfully filed suit against Utah’s bigamy law on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. A federal judge ruled in their favor in 2013. But his decision was reversed by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016.
Rep. Mike Noel (R) saw that and decided the law needed to be changed so there would be no doubt of its constitutionality.
He sponsored HB99, legislation that would change the definition of bigamy and increase the penalty for a violation of the law in some cases.
HB99 would change the definition of bigamy to include people who “purport” to marry two or more people and live with them. Currently, only one or the other provision is required to be a bigamist.
Bigamy would still be a third-degree felony under HB99. But the penalty of up to five years in prison could go up to as much as 15 years if the bigamy is associated with another crime like abuse, fraud or smuggling.
Prosecutors in Utah have not prosecuted many cases of bigamy unless some kind of abuse or other crime can be included in the criminal charges.
Kody said it’s ridiculous to try to tie polygamists to crimes such as abuse. He called it a “rope-a-dope” strategy in which a boxer pins his opponent against the ring’s ropes, pummeling him with one punch after another until he falls.
“Polygamy and abuse are not synonymous, no matter what people who have been abused in the culture of polygamy say,” Kody said.
However, when the Browns led a rally of hundreds of like-minded individuals in Salt Lake City in February, they were met by a group of people who said they were abused as children in polygamous families.
Pam Jenson, who told the Salt Lake Tribune she’s helped to counsel people who have left polygamous families, said an amnesty provision included in HB99 would provide a “safe harbor” to those who feel the need to escape those relationships.
But opponents of HB99 said the possibility of amnesty would only be used to help police recruit witnesses against polygamous families.
An outspoken family of polygamists who decided to stay in Utah has taken a more aggressive posture than the Browns.
Joe Darger told KUTV that he and his three wives are going to stay in their Utah home.
“I can stand here because I’m not afraid. I dare the state to arrest me. I want them to arrest me,” Darger said. “This is my wife Vickie and my wife Valerie and my wife Alina, which I know is a felony in the state of Utah.”
“I dare the state of Utah to arrest me,” Darger added.
Rep. Noel said the intent of the legislation is not to launch a mass roundup of polygamists on felony charges. He only wants to see bigamists arrested in connection with other more serious crimes, like abuse.
And the Republican said he was also motivated to offer the legislation to keep Utah from again having to spend millions of dollars to fight a lawsuit like the one filed by Kody Brown and his wives.
“We don’t want any more lawsuits,” Noel told KUTV.
Darger doesn’t buy that. He’s convinced the real intent of the law is to open an avenue for prosecution of polygamists.
“I respect the law,” Darger said, “but we have a law we have no intentions on enforcing; we only want to bully a class of people and keep them silent.”