ACLU of Utah to Join Polygamists in Bigamy Fight

Affiliate: ACLU of Utah
July 16, 1999 12:00 am

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SALT LAKE CITY — In hopes of vanquishing what they consider a 64-year-old injustice, a small but vocal group of polygamous wives and their supporters demonstrated in front of The Salt Lake Tribune, the paper reported today.

The Women’s Religious Liberties Union, established in 1998, gathered to protest newspaper and television depictions they say paint all polygamists as incestuous, misogynous and abusive to women and children.

But their real target, said the Tribune, is a 1935 Utah law that turned bigamy into a felony instead of a misdemeanor, and a clause that makes an outlaw of any person who “cohabits with another person.”

They are not alone. The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah told the paper that it plans to back the group’s challenge to Utah’s bigamy law.

“Living arrangements are really the most intimate kinds of decisions people make,” said ACLU of Utah Legal Director Stephen Clark. “Talking to Utah’s polygamists is like talking to gays and lesbians who really want the right to live their lives, and not live in fear because of whom they love. So certainly that kind of privacy expectation is something the ACLU is committed to protecting.”

Utah’s cohabitation clause was precisely aimed at polygamists, but is in direct conflict with religious protections in the U.S. Constitution, Religious Liberties Union spokeswoman Carol Smith told the paper.

“We believe you can’t discriminate against us because of our life choices,” Smith said. “What we want is very simple — eliminate the cohabitation clause of the bigamy law.”

But the women’s group faces rigid opposition, the Tribune reported. The U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled the First Amendment does not exempt citizens from criminal anti-bigamy laws, although the ACLU believes there is growing support to change that.

“The bigamy statute, like sodomy statutes (/issues/gay/sodomy.html) and like other anachronistic moralistic legislation, goes to the core of what the Supreme Court identifies as important fundamental privacy rights,” Clark told the paper.

In meetings held during the past several months, the ACLU and the WRLU have mapped out potential assaults on Utah’s bigamy statute. While no path has been chosen, the likely routes are a constitutional appeal of a bigamy conviction, or a push on Capitol Hill, where a lawmaker may be persuaded to introduce legislation altering the 1935 law.

“Let’s be proud of our heritage,” Sidney Anderson, a plural wife and member of WRLU told the crowd at the rally. “You don’t have to live polygamy, but please respect my freedom to practice my religion.”

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