September 23rd, 2013

Time to Decriminalize Polygamy

The following is an op-ed I had published in this weekend’s Salt Lake Tribune.

On May 15, 1945, fifteen men in suits and ties gathered for a photo opportunity on the steps of the Utah State Prison as they began their indeterminate sentences of up to five years. The supposed crime for which they were being incarcerated was “unlawful cohabitation.”

Put differently, the freedom of fifteen men was severely restricted, with taxpayers footing the bill for their prosecution and incarceration, because the men had strayed outside society’s norm by consensually choosing to love, support, and live with more than one female companion and their subsequent children.

The “unlawful cohabitation” charge was a result of political creativity, allowing prosecutors to successfully punish polygamists using a lower standard of evidence. While in past decades it was near impossible to punish polygamy due to jury nullification, wives being exempt from testifying against their husbands, and the difficulty in proving the existence of a sexual relationship, it became much easier to document and demonstrate mere cohabitation to the courts.

To be sure, Utah has a convoluted and controversial connection to polygamy, and both state and federal law over the past 130 years has been repeatedly amended to find effective ways to extinguish the practice. It hasn’t worked.

There are tens of thousands of individuals—Americans with the same unalienable rights as you and I—who currently live in polygamous families in Utah and other states. The many prosecutions that preceded the 1945 group, the infamous Short Creek raid that followed a few years later, and subsequent cases all illustrate the ultimate ineffectiveness of these laws.

But they are more than just ineffective—they are illegitimate. Whether such consensual unions exist for religious reasons or otherwise, the government lacks the authority to imprison people who so choose to live. Think about it: the government derives its just powers from individuals who comprise it. If your married neighbor decides to invite another adult woman to live with him, and everybody in that relationship agrees, do you have the moral authority to beat, fine, or imprison him? You do not, and therefore cannot empower your government to do it on your behalf.

Like any demographic, there are many religious, cultural, and political differences between varying polygamous groups. The oddities of and abuse within the FLDS faction are well known, yet more mainstream and “normal” polygamists like Kody Brown and Joe Darger stand as examples that defy the common stereotype that polygamists are Amish-like in their appearance and societal seclusion.

And let’s be clear: polygamous marriages are not perfect. There is abuse, domineering patriarchy, and oppressive cultural pressure within some plural marriages. But many monogamous marriages feature exactly the same problems.

In its current incarnation, Utah’s anti-polygamy law makes it a third-degree felony for a married person to “purport to marry” or “cohabit” with another person. Having been investigated and threatened with prosecution by Lehi Police and the Utah County Attorney, polygamist Kody Brown fled Utah with his family and sued the state to challenge this law in federal court. A ruling is expected any day from Judge Waddoups, and many believe that there is a good chance the law will be overturned.

Utah needs to abandon its anachronistic legal crusade against peaceful individuals who practice what many of our ancestors proudly did. To the extent that abuse exists within polygamous communities, then it should be investigated and punished. The best way to discover and stop abuse is to lift the threat of criminal prosecution from consenting adults, thereby encouraging them to stop living in the shadows of society. They, and we, will be better off as a result.

6 Responses to “Time to Decriminalize Polygamy”

  1. outside the corridor
    September 23, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    I don’t believe polygamy was ever inspired, though you are correct; even some of *my* ancestors ‘lived it’ “proudly”–

    the point is that the state has no right to interfere with marriage. Period.

    I believe in leaving these people alone. I don’t agree with how they live, but I don’t think it’s my business or the state’s business to tell them that.

  2. Ras
    September 25, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    Most people, especially LDS don’t believe they are prejudice, but the fact is they are against FLDS communities and often cruel (as I have seen first hand) and persecute people they don’t know at all. It makes me sad. I don’t agree with how many live their lives, if abuse is taking place then of course an investigation should be launched no matter the situation. I knew an FLDS family growing up and I was always shocked at the reaction of others upon finding out. Their parents and children were more stable, educated and kind individuals than most people would expect, they didn’t dress or behave differently, well… except for the fact their dad had another wife. Honest Americans with all the rights that I have, I don’t agree with that way of life, but these individuals have never done anything to warrant my spite and certainly not enough to be made a criminal over. Even if they did, I can’t use the law to persecute others just because I dislike their way of life even though it does me and my family no direct, or even indirect harm.

  3. JRSG
    October 5, 2013 at 5:57 am #

    Polygamy should be decriminalized. For starters, the polygamists are not being arrested for breaking the law. So why have the law on the books if it is not going to be enforced. Most polygamists seem to live normal lives.
    Yes, there are some polygamist groups who abuse the situation, like Warren Jeffs. He kicked out young boys so the older men could have the young girls, he “married” nieces and other very close relatives and a lot were too young. So either all of the polygamists get prosecuted and investigated for abuse, or make it legal, but some of the groups need to be investigated for abuse. Also they fleece the states of Utah and Arizona out of a ton of money. That needs to be investigated also.
    I personally believe that Joseph Smith goofed on polygamy. I also believe that a lot of the men in JS and BY times and beyond also abused polygamy. I still believe JS is a Prophet, but Prophet’s make mistakes. I have a hard time with polygamy and so does my husband. I guess when we are no longer mortal our views will be different.
    Polygamy was not illegal until after Joseph Smith started it and the enemies of the church wanted it made illegal. Blackbeard the Pirate had multiple wives in the 1700’s and it was no problem. I have read stories of men who would leave their first wife and family and move in with another woman without even divorcing the first wife. And sometimes the man would marry the second woman without obtaining a divorce from the first wife. The man did not get into trouble. And it happened here in the U.S.

  4. Lilli
    October 6, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    Prophets may not be perfect, but they don’t commit whoredoms and abuse their wife with things like polygamy and they don’t preach & practice ‘contrary’ to Christ & the scriptures. Christ & the Book of Mormon prophets condemn polygamy in every case.

    I believe Joseph told the truth his whole life, when he said he was innocent and didn’t preach or practice polygamy, or anything like unto it.

    Joseph warned us & the Saints of his day that if he or any other ‘prophet’ or person came preaching or practicing polygamy or anything like it, then we should know they are false or fallen prophets, and he said we will be damned if we followed them and lived polygamy too.

    Thus he was warning them of the ‘future’ Brigham Young, but many refused to heed Joseph’s warnings and instead fell for & followed Brigham.

    After studying ‘real’ church history, I believe Joseph was about to excommunicate Brigham and other apostles for adultery/polygamy, but he died before he could do so.

    Joseph also warned that most people/Saints easily fall for ‘false prophets’ because they teach mostly true & wonderful things but then slip in just enough false doctrine to lead people unknowingly astray. (which most people never pick up on)

    He also taught that we must have ‘perfect love & charity’ or we will be easily deceived and lose our place in the Celestial Kingdom.

    The true church and authority was lost with Joseph, but as Joseph said, the Kingdom of God goes forth even today, even if just ‘one’ person is righteous and can receive revelation from God.

    I’m sure there are many who can do so & who keep the Kingdom of God alive on the earth, waiting for Zion to be established.

    To know the truth we must ‘live it’ & liken it to ourselves. The Golden Rule reveals how evil polygamy is. If you wouldn’t want your husband or wife running after & living with a lot of other spouses, then neither should you support men/false prophets who do or believe in such things.

    It never ceases to amaze me that people believe in men who did such vile abusive things, when if their own spouse today did such they would leave them for it.

  5. Swifftee
    October 28, 2014 at 3:40 am #


    What do you think now that the Church has come out and explicitly stated that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy? Do you still believe the lies Joseph told or our current church leadership?


  1. When Judges Overturn the Will of the People | Connor's Conundrums - December 21, 2013

    […] by banning cohabitation with a person other than one’s spouse. This clause was introduced specifically to target polygamists, and was declared unconstitutional by the judge. Asked for comment on the ruling, Utah Governor […]

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