SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Darger recalled the homage paid last month to the legacy of Martha Hughes Cannon, the Utah woman who was the first ever female U.S. senator.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, honored Hughes on the opening day of the 2017 Utah Legislature, saying Utahns should be proud of what she accomplished. Hughes appears on this year's state Senate commemorative coin.
"I thought, 'What the irony,'" said Darger, who has three wives, and was among an estimated 300 people from Utah's polygamist communities to gather Friday on the steps of the state Capitol in a show of opposition to HB99.
"You know what? (Hughes) ran against her husband, and she beat him," he told the crowd. "And she was one of six plural wives."
HB99, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, would redefine polygamy in line with recent court rulings, increase the statutory crime of bigamy to a second-degree felony when attached to certain other crimes, and include a safe harbor clause for informants leaving polygamous relationships.
To Darger, the bill represents "religious bigotry."
"In this world of alternative facts, here is a fact, Utah: There are alternative families," he said to cheers on the Capitol steps. "Get used to it. We're not going away."
Several marchers held signs in opposition to the bill, including several that read: "Families, Not Felons." After hearing from Darger and others for about 45 minutes, the group made its way into the rotunda and chanted the same mantra.
Noel has said he introduced HB99 to "make some progress against very, very serious problems with polygamy." The bill has been the subject of two crowded House Judiciary Committee hearings, with several people weighing in on both sides of the measure.
Noel held a news conference Friday with former polygamists who are concerned that the practice leaves children, teenagers and women vulnerable to various abuses. The lawmaker wondered aloud how a woman could actually accept being just one of many wives to her husband.
“What woman would chose to be in a relationship where her husband had two wives, or three wives, or four wives?” he asked rhetorically.
Noel was joined by former members of the Kingston and Fundamentalist LDS polygamist groups, all of whom voiced their support for HB99.
Jessica Christensen, a former polygamist wife and the subject of the reality television series "Escaping Polygamy," said she supported the “safe harbor amendment” of Noel’s bill, which would allow members of a polygamist marriage to step forward under the outlined conditions without repurcussions.
Christensen was adamant about dispelling the idea of polygamy that doesn't include abuse.
“I do come from one of those more abusive groups,” she said. “The innocent polygamists, as they call themselves, they do represent a small minority.”
Others who joined Noel detailed the types of abuses they said they suffered as members of polygamist groups.
Julie Atkinson, a former member of the well-known polygamist Kingston family, said she did not want to abandon the idea of polygamy when she left the group, but she found that other groups were not much better.
“I was one of the lucky ones to realize that this lifestyle is wrong,” Atkinson said. “Their normal is not normal.”
But Darger contends that HB99, "and even the current statute, hurts innocent families."
State law currently makes it illegal to marry or cohabitate with another person while already married. HB99 would change the "or" in that statement to "and."
The measure would also provide a defense for people committing statutory bigamy if they left such a relationship out of "fear of coercion or bodily harm" or if they were taking steps "to protect the safety and welfare" children in such families.
Additionally, if a defendant were to be connected to additional crimes — including fraud, domestic abuse, child abuse or sexual abuse — then the charge of bigamy would be enhanced to a second-degree felony.
Kody Brown, who along with his four wives is the subject of TLC's well-known "Sister Wives" TV series, said that painting all polygamous families as abusive is harmful.
"We want people to understand we're consenting adults," Brown said prior to the rally. "We're trying to separate ourselves from the stereotype of polygamist abuse."
Warren Jeffs, the now-imprisoned former leader of the FLDS Church, "has frankly given us a crummy name," he said.
Brown, who lived in Lehi when "Sister Wives" began airing but has since moved to Las Vegas, said he wanted to show support for his counterparts in Utah. He said he understands the goal of HB99 but believes it will have the opposite of its intended effect.
"I think they have good intentions, he said. "They want to eliminate abuse."
But laws prohibiting polygamy have "driven this entire culture underground," Brown said, because people are afraid of their families being broken up. All polygamists in Utah suffer from substantial social stigmas, he said.
The assumption that all polygamist families tolerate abuse or want to cover it up is erroneous, Darger said.
"I would not want to silence these stories," he said. "Abuse is abuse is abuse."
Darger also said being prohibited from "purporting" to be married to another person equates to a violation of the Constitution because "what they're criminalizing is my speech."
About two dozen counter-protesters were on hand Friday to push back at the messages being presented. A small handful of them shouted rebuttals during the pro-polygamy speeches.
Alonya Zitting, who was among those who marched to the Capitol, is a University of Utah student whose grandparents practice polygamy. While she and her parents have decided against that lifestyle for themselves, Zitting said she strongly believes that polygamy should be a right for those who want to practice it.
"They're not asking for the state to even recognize (polygamous marriage)," she said. "They just want it decriminalized."
Contributing: Ryan Morgan