Mar 3, 2017

LDS Church has been brought into polygamy debate at Utah Legislature

The Salt Lake Tribune
March 1, 2017

Complex ties » Anti-bigamy proposal sponsor says polygamists “hijacked” his Mormon faith; advocate of plural marriage says the church is behind the bill.

About 51 weeks ago, polygamists and their supporters picketed in the Utah Capitol's Rotunda.

They were protesting a bill meant to curb polygamy, but it wasn't just the measure's sponsor who drew their ire. Some signs were directed at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which abandoned polygamy in the late 19th century as a condition of Utah statehood and which excommunicates members found practicing it. The protesters suspected the LDS Church had lobbied for the bill.

This year, there is another bill meant to curb polygamy, but it hasn't been polygamists who have been publicly discussing the LDS Church. It has been the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who is a member of the LDS Church. As the 2017 Utah legislative session has progressed, he has increased his criticism of polygamists, especially those who call themselves fundamentalist Mormons.

"They've hijacked my religion and I actually resent that," Noel told The Associated Press on Feb. 10 as polygamists were marching toward the Capitol in another protest.

Then, on Thursday, Noel gave a speech on the House floor in support of his HB99. He called polygamous sects "organized crime" and complained that the public confuses polygamous groups such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints with his church.

"The fact that individuals come up there and testify they are FLDS Mormons insults me and bothers me," Noel said, raising his voice. "They are an apostate group and they are no part of my religion."

HB99 passed 48-25. It is waiting for action in the Utah Senate. It is not scheduled for a hearing, and it is unclear whether the Senate will consider it before the Legislature adjourns March 9.

LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said Tuesday in an email that the Salt Lake City-based faith has not lobbied for the bill.

Asked to state the church's position on it, Hawkins wrote: "The practice of polygamy remains strictly prohibited in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When it comes to laws governing polygamy, the church's primary interest is in looking after potential victims of such associations.

"The church is concerned that reducing the perceived seriousness of this criminal activity sends the message that such abuses are not serious criminal offenses."

LDS Church support for keeping polygamy a felony motivated polygamists at the 2016 protest. One sign depicted two missionaries from the LDS Church peeking inside the bedroom of a man and woman under the covers. The sign read, "Mormon Bedroom Police."

That 2016 bill died in the same place the 2017 bill is currently lodged — it failed to get a hearing or a vote in the Utah Senate.

Joe Darger, who has three wives, has led the opposition to bigamy bills in 2016 and this year. He said Noel's opinions of fundamentalist Mormons — typically defined as people who adhere to the practices taught by LDS Church Presidents Joseph Smith and Brigham Young — are hardly unique among legislators.

"When I use the term 'plural Mormon families,' " Darger said, "I watch their faces all twitter."

Darger said Noel's statements strengthen polygamists' arguments that the Legislature is crafting a law aimed at one group. Polygamists have called that unconstitutional.

Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor who has published research showing polygamy is harmful to women and children, said Friday that Noel's statements are unlikely to cause any legal consequences. It is unlikely polygamists will be able to effectively use what Noel said as evidence in any lawsuit challenging the polygamy bill, Guiora said, because it is within the Legislature's purview to establish crimes and punishments.

"That strikes me not as targeting a particular group," Guiora said, "but protecting the vulnerable, which is exactly what a legislature should be doing."

This year's bill adds criteria for being prosecuted for bigamy: The offender must live with the extra spouse and "purport" to be married. Current state law requires only one or the other.

HB99 would keep the offense a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison, but those penalties could increase to one to 15 years if bigamy is prosecuted in conjunction with crimes such as abuse, fraud or human smuggling. Anyone leaving a polygamous marriage and reporting abuse or protecting a child would receive amnesty.

Noel has done more than air theological disagreements. His district includes parts of Washington County, home of the FLDS, and he has said he was encouraged to sponsor his bill when he heard stories of abuse from former members of that and other polygamous churches.

Debates over the bills last year and this year also have highlighted the complicated relationships between polygamy and the LDS Church. Noel has discussed how two of his great-grandfathers served time in jail for polygamy. Other legislators have discussed their own family history with polygamy.

Polygamous groups that consider themselves fundamentalist Mormons worship from similar texts as the LDS Church. Used hymnals from LDS wards have found their way to polygamous congregations.

LDS charities have helped people fleeing polygamous households. Many people from polygamous families choose to get baptized in the LDS Church, including two of Darger's children.

Darger said Noel's statements show how the LDS Church should engage in a dialogue with lawmakers and polygamists about the proper way to address polygamy.

"It's clear the LDS Church is a stakeholder in this," Darger said, "whether it wants to be or not."

Twitter: @natecarlisle

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