(CNSNews.com) -- A bill in the Utah legislature that would decriminalize polygamy, knocking it down from a felony to an infraction -- the equivalent of a parking ticket -- passed the Utah Senate last week and was approved by a House committee on Monday, making it more likely that the legislation will become law soon.
Under current law in Utah, a largely Mormon state, polygamy is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Under a proposal to amend the bigamy laws in the state, SB 102, the rules would be amended to reclassify polygamy as an "infraction."
The bill was sponsored by State Sen. Deidre Henderson (R-Spanish Fork) and has 20 co-sponsors. Sen. Henderson contends that under the current polygamy law, women and children are often afraid of leaving a polygamous home for fear of punishment, and this fear (and manipulation) is often imposed by the male head of the household.
"Don’t prosecute otherwise law-abiding polygamists, but instead focus on actual crimes like fraud and abuse," Henderson wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune on Feb. 7. "We want to encourage more reporting and easier investigation of abuse, and the way to do that, after consulting with prosecutors and polygamists alike, is to reduce the criminal penalty so the high barrier to community integration is lowered."
"Let me be clear: I am not seeking to legalize polygamy or provide for multiple marriage licenses," she said. "What I am aiming to do during the legislative session is address the human rights crisis our law has created. We must build a bridge where we’ve had a wall for nearly a century."
However, officials with the Sound Choices Coalition, which fights against polygamy, claim that amending the bigamy laws will only make it easier for men to abuse women and families through polygamy.
“To bring it down to an infraction, you’re essentially saying this is an okay lifestyle,” testified Sound Choices Coalition's Angela Kelly before the Senate Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. “And it might be for 10 people, but we’re talking about society as a whole.”
In a statement, the Sound Choices Coalition said, "we are often accused of being hateful and bitter when we speak out against the numerous harms of polygamy: child brides, trafficking, incest, tax evasion, extortion (money for salvation), and suppression of basic human and equal rights, etc."
"Mormon polygamy is NOT A CHOICE, as fundamentalists would like you to believe," reads the statement. "Mormons believe in LDS Doctrine and Covenants Section 132, which explains in detail how a faithful believer must live polygamy or reap 'eternal damnation' … That LDS canonized scripture is used to convert hundreds of mainstream LDS members into becoming polygamists."
"Offenders use Section 132 to justify crimes and deviant behaviors; to subvert and oppress their wives and their numerous offspring who have been indoctrinated from birth into believing that a loving God commanded such suffering and disparity," said the Sound Choices Coalition.
Polygamy was practiced by the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, and by leaders of the church in the 19th century. Church leaders (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) revealed in 2014 that Smith had up to 40 wives, some of whom were already married and one who was only 14 years old, reported the New York Times. Smith was killed by a mob at the age of 38 on June 27, 1844.
"In 1890, under pressure by the American government, the church issued a manifesto formally ending polygamy," reported The New York Times. "The church’s essay on this phase admits that some members and even leaders did not abandon the practice for years."
Some LDS splinter groups in the West continue to practice polygamy but the official LDS church does not.