A bill that would toughen Utah’s anti-bigamy laws passed the House on Thursday, even as some lawmakers questioned its constitutionality.
Rep. Mike Noel's HB 99 seeks to clear up the legal limbo surrounding the state’s law prohibiting plural marriages after a federal court struck down part of the statute in 2013.
It was later reinstated by an appeals court, but Noel said this revision is more likely to hold up under legal scrutiny next time and has more teeth.
“Right now, polygamy is a felony,” he said during floor debate. “We are not raising the penalty; we are not changing the penalty for the practice of polygamy. However, in this bill, we do enhance the penalty, and we provide safe harbor for those who want to get out of it.”
The law would change it from a third degree to a second degree felony if an accused person is convicted of bigamy in addition to crimes such as fraud, child abuse or sexual assault.
Still, many lawmakers expressed unease over the language of the bill, including Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove. He said the wording may make it even less defensible in court.
“What we would do here is criminalize -- and what the statute already does -- is criminalize your speech," he said. "The speech of those who want to claim that they have multiple spouses. That amounts to an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech in violation of the first amendment.”
But Noel forcefully defended his bill as the best way to protect vulnerable women and children who find themselves trapped in abusive situations. As he spoke, he pointed to a woman seated next to him who had escaped a polygamist marriage.
“This is Utah’s version of organized crime – what’s going on in these sects and groups,” he said. “And we can ferret it out and we can do a better job in our state. We don’t need to go anyplace else; we need to start right here in our own backyard.”
The House passed the measure 48 to 25. It next heads to the Senate for consideration.