A Utah Senate committee unanimously approved a bill to decriminalize polygamy

Utah is a mostly conservative state, but it's always had a renegade streak.  That streak is polygamy, a belief core to the founders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (AKA the Mormons).  Earlier this week, the Utah Senate's Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee took a step toward decriminalizing polygamy by approving a bill that would reduce it from a felony to an infraction.

When Joseph Smith began the Church of Latter-Day Saints, one of its most recognizable components was polygamy.  A well positioned male member of the Mormon faith could have an unlimited number of multiple wives, provided he could support them and their offspring.  Other Americans, especially Republicans, found polygamy appalling, likening it to slavery as a barbaric practice.

By 1862, the Republican-led United States Congress made polygamy illegal everywhere in America, including in the territories.  Mormons ignored the law, believing that it violated the First Amendment.  However, in 1879, in Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the law, holding that the government could control religious practices, even though it could not impose religious doctrines or tests on American citizens.

Eventually, Utah's desire to become part of the United States trumped its commitment to polygamy.  In 1890, the Mormon church announced as its official policy that it would no longer countenance polygamy.  Although existing plural marriages were not dissolved, the Mormon church's future practices were now so reconciled with American law and policy that, in 1896, Utah became a state.  By 1904, the Mormon church had all but wiped out polygamy.

That was mainstream Mormonism.  Meanwhile, separatist groups have continued practicing polygamy.  The best known was the case of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, headed by Warren Jeffs.  Jeffs's downfall was the fact that he routinely arranged marriages between adult men in his community and underage girls.  The whole thing looked more like a pedophile scam than a return to core Mormon practices.  Jeffs, who awarded himself as many as 87 wives, is currently serving a life term in prison.

Aside from the notorious Jeffs affair, Utah and surrounding states are dotted with small enclaves of plural marriages.  It's not uncommon at the Utah state fair to see a man trailed by hordes of women and girls in old-fashioned gingham, all with long, braided hair — and then to learn from a Utah native that you're looking at a polygamous man with his family.

From 2006 to 2011, HBO aired Big Love, a prime-time soap opera about a polygamous family in Utah.  The mainstream Mormon Church was not impressed:

Despite its popularity with some, much of today's television entertainment shows an unhealthy preoccupation with sex, coarse humor and foul language. Big Love, like so much other television programming, is essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds.

Polygamists, on the other hand, liked the show, which helped promote their lifestyle.

In justifying the decision to decriminalize polygamy, the Utah Senate committee argued that doing so would allow victims of incest and other abuse within the polygamous community to get help.  This is precisely the same argument so-called sanctuary states use to justify ignoring federal laws regarding illegal aliens or to give them driver's licenses.

Republican Sen. Deirdre Henderson says it's not fair to make people feel like criminals...for engaging in criminal activity:

"The people that I have spoken with long to feel part of society," Henderson said. "They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens. They feel like Utah has legalized prejudice against them. They want to be honest people, but feel like they have to lie or teach their children to lie about their families in order to stay safe."

The real problem with legalizing polygamy is the usual slippery slope argument.  While mainstream America is not open to polygamy (although "throuples" are now an "in" thing), there is one culture that is predicated on polygamy, and that is Islam.  Under Islamic law, a man may have as many as four wives and as many concubines as he wants.

This might not be a problem in a non-welfare world.  However, the welfare state means that, in places such as England, which does not allow plural marriage within the country but recognizes plural wives who were married in Muslim countries, taxpayers end up supporting all the multiple wives and children.  From the Muslim perspective, this is appropriate jizya, the tax that non-believers pay to support their Muslim overlords.

And yes, it's a long road from a Senate committee in Utah to jizya in America.  However, that road is already partially paved by the Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which did away with the Western notion of marriage as a civil compact between one man and one woman.

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