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New bill in Utah would remove bigamy from felony list

AFP  |  Los Angeles 

A new bill introduced in the western US state of Utah calls for polygamy to no longer be considered a felony but instead a simple infraction that would be on par with getting a traffic ticket.

The bill, which was unanimously approved on Monday by a committee in the state senate, will now go before the full senate for consideration.

Bigamy -- the practice of having more than one spouse -- is currently considered a felony in Utah, where an estimated 30,000 people still practice it.

They risk up to five years in prison and a fine of up to USD 5,000.

The bill's lead sponsor, Republican state senator Deidre Henderson, argued that the current law was unenforceable and only serves to isolate polygamist communities while failing to protect potential victims.

"The law is a failure. It hasn't stopped polygamy at all and it's actually enabled abuse to occur and remain unchecked," Henderson said.

She added that making polygamy a felony offense had stigmatized families and led to a culture of secrecy.

Henderson also pointed out that the bill calls for stiffer penalties for crimes linked to bigamy, including forced marriages.

The bill has received the support of the Utah branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the practice should be decriminalized when consenting adults are involved.

"One of the reasons we would agree with decriminalization is that victims themselves are oftentimes part of polygamist families and so feel very afraid to come forward and report issues of abuse because they themselves are guilty of polygamy," Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel at the ACLU of Utah, told AFP.

Opponents of the bill, including former members of polygamous groups, however have warned that the new law, if approved, will only encourage abuse.

"The bill won't do anything to help the victims. It will empower the abusers," said Melissa Ellis, vice president of Sound Choices Coalition, who fled a polygamous clan.

Amelia Anthony, who also left a plural marriage and has become a victims' advocate, said the bill "condones and gives more power to abusers and fanatics who will take the newfound 'freedom' to the extreme." Polygamy has been practiced in Utah by some religious groups since before it became a state.

Even though it is illegal, officials have largely opted not to prosecute those who engage in it, instead adopting a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned polygamy in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Wed, February 12 2020. 12:38 IST