The Utah Senate has approved a bill that would have the effect of decriminalizing polygamy in the state.

Polygamy, or plural marriage, is currently considered a felony in Utah and is punishable by five years in prison, although prosecutions have been rare in modern times. Under the bill, it would be reduced to the level of a minor offense and would merit no time in prison, as long as the arrangement was voluntarily chosen by adults.

Supporters of the change say that making polygamy illegal has served to drive it underground, and as a result, women in polygamous relationships who want to get out are reluctant to seek help.

“Branding all polygamists as felons has facilitated abuse, not eliminated polygamy,” said state Sen. Deidre Henderson (R-Spanish Fork). Henderson pointed out that under her bill, polygamy would still be illegal if done in conjunction with other crimes, such as the marriage of under-age girls.

Utah is dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Early members practiced poly­gamy when the denomination was founded in the mid-19th century. Church leaders disavowed plural marriage in 1890, but there are still pockets of fundamentalist LDS splinter churches that practice it. Most of them live in a southern Utah city called Hildale.

The bill, SB 102, is pending before the Utah House of Representatives.

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