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Pushback for Bill to Decriminalize Polygamy in Utah

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Tuesday, February 25, 2020   

SALT LAKE CITY -- Efforts to decriminalize polygamy in Utah are getting international attention, but opponents say it could make life worse for people trapped in plural families. A bill in the Utah Legislature would make polygamy among consenting adults - currently a felony - into a minor infraction, similar to a traffic ticket, while toughening the laws on bigamy.

An estimated 30,000 people practice polygamy in Utah. Tonia Tewell, whose group Holding Out HELP assists people leaving polygamous situations, said the idea of decriminalizing the practice strikes fear in the hearts of those who want out.

"I have client after client after client who are in precarious situations of abuse happening as we speak that are communicating with me. And they are petrified when this goes through that their perpetrators are just going to feel like, 'See? Now I can do anything I want,'" Tewell said.

The bill has been approved by the state Senate, and is pending in the House. Officials from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have declined to comment on it.

The bill's author, GOP Senator Deidre Henderson, said the law is rarely enforced and serves to "push polygamous families out of the mainstream."

Tewell said she founded her group after encountering someone who left a polygamous family and had nowhere else to go.

"We serve primarily people who are leaving polygamy with all the resources necessary to get back on their feet," she said. "But we also do serve people who are living inside of these communities. Most of the time that has to do with therapy, and sometimes food and toiletries when they don't have enough for their family."

Polygamy was officially ended by the Mormon Church in 1890. Despite the official disavowal, Tewell said, many who practice it still invoke early church canon to legitimize the lifestyle.

"If you look at the original doctrine, your purpose is to get married and bear children for your husband. And the alternative is not reaching the celestial kingdom in heaven," she said. "And so, as a woman, I'm not sure you really have a choice if that's what you were brought up on."

Tewell said her nonprofit group, founded in 2008, serves between 150 and 250 clients a year.


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