Sen. Deidre Henderson, a Republican sponsor of the Utah bill, told National Public Radio that strict enforcement of the anti-polygamy law in the mid-20th century did not deter plural marriage. She said polygamous families have been driven underground "into a shadow society where the vulnerable make easy prey."
Henderson argued that the current law is unenforceable if there are no other crimes. She said the law has created a "full-blown human rights crisis" that makes victims of abuse and fraud afraid to come forward and which criminalizes citizens who otherwise follow the law, the Salt Lake City Tribune reports.
She also argued that the bill codifies current practice of the Utah Attorney General to prosecute only when other serious crimes are being committed.
Henderson said people in polygamous communities "long to feel part of society."
"They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens," she said. "They feel like Utah has legalized prejudice against them. They want to be honest people, but feel like they have to lie or teach their children to lie about their families in order to stay safe."
Shirlee Draper, who grew up in a polygamous family in Colorado City, Arizona, told the Senate committee she was taught never to speak to law enforcement. Her father and other adults would warn children of raids on polygamous communities, which encouraged fear of outsiders as "kidnappers."
Draper, a victim advocate who backs decriminalization, said abuse and violence cases come from a variety of family and religious backgrounds. She suggested that nobody argues that "it's the family structure that causes those abuses."
She said polygamous families are wrongly assumed to be committing illicit acts.
Other backers of the bill include the ACLU of Utah and the Statewide Association of Prosecutors.
Easton Harvey, speaking to the Senate committee on behalf of the polygamy critics Sound Choices Coalition, said members of these communities are afraid to report abuse because they fear ostracism from their community or divine punishment.
Angela Kelly, director of the Sound Choices Coalition, said polygamy is comparable to organized crime and slavery. Reducing criminal penalties would encourage more polygamous households and send the message that it is "an okay lifestyle."
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The coalition denies that polygamy is a choice, National Public Radio reports. It accuses fundamentalist Mormons of using their scriptures "to justify crimes and deviant behaviors" and "to subvert and oppress their wives and their numerous offspring who have been indoctrinated from birth into believing that a loving God commanded such suffering and disparity."
The Sound Choices Coalition says that in polygamous practice, young men are pushed out of polygamous communities so that older men may monopolize young women as wives. It contends the practice is linked to child brides, incest, and the extortion of money in exchange for the promise of religious salvation.
Republican Sen. Dan Thatcher, the only member of the Senate committee who did not sponsor the bill, said he was not interested in hearing about the badness of polygamy because it would not cause him to vote against the bill.
"This is better than what we are doing now, and I have not heard a single person bring forward a better solution," he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the prohibition on polygamy.
In 2019 the American Psychological Association launched a special task force to counter what it said was the "stigmatization" of people who practice consensual polygamy.