Sep 25, 2019

Polygamy foes go door to door in a Utah neighborhood with polygamists to talk 'bigamy reform'

Nate Carlisle
Salt Lake Tribune
September 25, 2019

Eagle Mountain • The salt-and-pepper-haired man who answered the door said he knows some polygamists and has respect for them.

But he also said that he knows there are some people who have had to leave their polygamous homes and that he’d like a system in place for them to report crimes within the households. Before closing the door, the man said one more thing: He complimented Angela Kelly and Melissa Ellis for coming to his neighborhood.

“I’m impressed you came here,” he said. “That’s very difficult.”

Kelly and Ellis are the director and vice president, respectively, of Sound Choices Coalition, a nonprofit whose website says it is “dedicated to raising awareness and working to end the damaging practices associated with polygamous cultures.” On Monday, the two knocked on doors in an Eagle Mountain neighborhood known to have a high number of polygamists from the Apostolic United Brethren.

The pair wanted to talk to the residents about what’s being called “bigamy reform.” Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, has been working on a bill that would reduce polygamy to a misdemeanor or less, perhaps making it on par with a traffic ticket. The visit to Eagle Mountain also previews what legislators can expect if they again take up polygamy — a topic that has been debated since before Utah was a state.

When the Legislature last debated and then amended the bigamy statute in 2017, it spurred a gush of personal tales from polygamists who felt criminalizing their life makes them second-class citizens who fear law enforcement — and from people who left polygamy after abuses or bad experiences.

While Kelly and Ellis acknowledge they don’t like Henderson’s proposal, they said they went to Eagle Mountain to hear what residents there think. Kelly, who previously worked on child trafficking and sex abuse issues, and Ellis, who grew up in the polygamous Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group, walked up to 17 doors in about 90 minutes.

Most people weren’t home, or at least didn’t answer their door. A few other homes had signs saying “No Soliciting,” and Kelly and Ellis turned around as soon as they reached the porch.

But a few people in the neighborhood talked to Kelly and Ellis. One woman in her 30s or 40s answered the door. Kelly explained the rationale behind Henderson’s proposal.

Henderson worries that keeping polygamy as it is, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison — or 15 years if the polygamist is also found to have committed other crimes such as physical abuses or fraud — discourages people in plural families from reporting crimes.

Kelly explained to the woman at the door her concerns with reducing the penalty for polygamy. She argues people in polygamous groups might not know what constitutes fraud, abuse or other crimes, and so there’s no benefit to lessening the offense of polygamy.

“If you want people to come forward on those other crimes,” Kelly said, “you need to educate them on those crimes.”

Kelly invited Ellis to speak about her experiences in a plural family.

“When I left,” Ellis told the woman at the door, “I didn’t even know anything about the laws.”

The woman, who didn’t indicate if she was in a polygamous church, said she didn’t know polygamy was a felony. By the end of her conversation with Kelly and Ellis, she wasn’t sure if lowering the penalty would help or hurt, but she took Kelly’s business card.

Later, Kelly and Ellis stopped at a house where a woman in her 20s or early 30s answered. After a few minutes, an elementary-school-age girl joined the women on the porch.

The woman who answered the door said her family members are in the AUB, and they have been taught to report abuses when they see it. She believes lowering the penalty for polygamy will encourage others to report fraud and abuse without fear that others in the family will be sent to prison, too. The conversation remained cordial. After a few minutes, Kelly and Ellis left.

As they walked back to their car, Kelly called the day a success.

“Anytime we can make a positive interaction with people in polygamy," she said, "it’s a positive.”

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