Utah lawmakers ease up on polygamy

Utah lawmakers voted Tuesday to put new regulations on pornography and remove some on polygamy in separate proposals moving quickly through the Legislature in the deeply conservative state.

Senators voted unanimously to change state law to remove the threat of jail time for consenting adult polygamists, a step that supporters argue will free people in communities that practice plural marriage to report abuses, like children being taken as wives, without fear of prosecution.

A majority of people in Utah belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which had an early history of polygamy but has forbidden it for more than a century.

An hour later, House lawmakers approved a proposal to require pornography to carry warning labels about harm to minors. An adult entertainment industry group called the vote a dark day for freedom of expression.

The faith widely known as the Mormon church declared pornography a public health crisis in 2016, and since then, more than a dozen states have advanced similar proposals.

The labeling proposal from Republican state Rep. Brady Brammer would carry a potential penalty of $2,500 per violation.

"I think it will make a difference," Brammer said. "It won't stop every problem related to obscenity, it will not stop all obscenity, but it will move the ball further down the field."

Republican lawmakers called it a creative solution. The measure would apply to material that appears in Utah in print or online and allow the state and residents to sue producers.

The new measure is narrowly aimed at hardcore obscene material, but the way the law is written could still allow for thousands of lawsuits, said Mike Stabile, a spokesman for the Free Speech Coalition, a pornography and adult entertainment trade group.

"Really it just sort of opens up the floodgates for lawsuits over all sorts of content," he said.

He also argues the dire harms outlined in the proposed warning label haven't been proven.

The porn warning labels need to be approved by the Senate, while the reduction in punishments for polygamy must pass the House.

Utah's restrictive bigamy law is an outgrowth of the church's history with polygamy. While mainstream members abandoned the practice in 1890, an estimated 30,000 people living in polygamous communities follow teachings that taking multiple wives brings exaltation in heaven.

Utah goes further than other states by prohibiting cohabitation with more than one purported spouse. The measure from Republican Utah Sen. Deidre Henderson would make that an infraction rather than a felony.

Some former members of polygamous groups have spoken against the change, saying it would do little to help victims like those in underage marriages.

Polygamists with Utah ties range from Warren Jeffs, who was convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered wives, to Kody Brown, whose four wives chose the relationship as adults. The Browns have opened their lives to reality TV cameras in the TLC show "Sister Wives."

Utah has publicly declined to prosecute otherwise law-abiding polygamists for years. Still, Henderson argues that fears remain, left over from raids where children were separated from their parents.

The new proposal would keep harsher penalties for other crimes sometimes linked to polygamy, including coerced marriage.

"Bad people really can, and have, weaponized the law in order to keep their victims silent and isolated in their control," she said.