SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would strengthen penalties for bigamy whenever it's tied to child abuse, fraud, domestic abuse, sexual abuse or certain other crimes passed Thursday in Utah House of Representatives.
HB99 passed with a 48-25 vote and now heads to the Senate.
The vote comes after hours of testimony in a House committee earlier this month, when lawmakers heard often emotional stories about the abuses associated with polygamy and the fear otherwise law-abiding people practicing bigamy or polygamy have of being prosecuted.
Several lawmakers struggled with supporting the bill, worried that it might drive polygamous families deeper into the shadows and make prosecutions even more difficult.
But supporters said the bill would give prosecutors a stronger legal tool to hold perpetrators accountable by expanding the criteria for being prosecuted for bigamy.
Under the bill, the offender must live with the second spouse and "purport" to be married to an extra spouse.
A bigamy offense would remain a third-degree felony, if HB99 passes, but it would increase to a second-degree felony punishable to up to 15 years in prison if the crime is prosecuted along with other crimes such as abuse, fraud, domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse or human trafficking.
A person leaving a polygamous marriage to report abuse or protect a child would be protected, the bill states.
"We are going to continue to outlaw the practice of polygamy and bigamy in our state, and we are going to tear down these evil organizations that are taking advantage of our children and what I call Utah's version of organized crime," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.
Noel, a Mormon, also decried any association between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and polygamous groups, such as the Fundamentalist LDS Church.
"The fact that people come up here and testify that they are FLDS Mormons insults me and bothers me," he said. "They are an apostate group and no part of my religion."
Noel said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has told him this law would "strengthen" his ability to prosecute bigamy offenders.
While Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said he recognized the "serious evils" of the crimes known to be associated with polygamy, he worried the bill wouldn't provide "equal protection" under the law. He noted that people who don't "purport" to be married but are cohabitating as polygamists would not be prosecuted.
House Minority Leader Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he was struggling to support the bill, wondering if it would create a chilling effect and cause families to hide even more heavily from law enforcement.
"Is it going to drive (polygamous families) even more deeply underground in a way that harms the lives of these women and children? This is such a difficult bill. It's so complex and difficult to figure out. I just don't think we have it quite right yet," King said.
The bill was forwarded to the Senate for consideration.