Understanding Polygamy Laws in Utah: A Detailed Examination

To fully grasp the polygamy laws in Utah, it is essential to delve into the history of polygamy in the state. The mid-19th century marked a significant period when Brigham Young led members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) to the territory now known as Utah. During this time, the LDS Church openly practiced and preached polygamy, considering it a religious duty and a means to attain salvation.

Let’s break down the key events related to polygamy in Utah and the subsequent laws that were implemented:

  • 1847-1890: The LDS Church actively encouraged its members to practice polygamy. It was widely regarded as a religious obligation and a path to spiritual advancement. Many church leaders and followers entered into plural marriages during this period.
  • 1890: Due to mounting pressure from the federal government, LDS Church president Wilford Woodruff issued a declaration known as the Manifesto. This document formally declared the end of new plural marriages within the LDS Church. However, it did not explicitly renounce the principle of polygamy as a religious doctrine.
  • 1896: Utah achieved statehood and was admitted into the Union. One of the conditions for statehood was the inclusion of a provision in the state constitution banning polygamy. Consequently, the Utah State Constitution explicitly prohibited polygamy, making it illegal within the state.

Current Legal Framework Regarding Polygamy

In the state of Utah, polygamy is currently regarded as a felony. This stance on polygamy is dictated by several provisions in Utah’s constitution and legal code, which are elaborated upon as follows:

Utah Constitution, Article III, Section 1

This section of the Utah Constitution explicitly states that polygamy is prohibited within the state. To emphasize, the text states that the practice is forever prohibited, which leaves no room for interpretation or miscommunication about the state’s position on the issue.

Utah Code Section 76-7-101

In this particular section of the Utah Code, bigamy, and by extension polygamy, is identified as a criminal act. Specifically, it is characterized as a third-degree felony. The potential consequences for being convicted of this crime can include both imprisonment and a financial penalty.

Senate Bill 102 (2020)

This bill introduced a significant change to the legal penalties associated with polygamy. Under Senate Bill 102, bigamy between consenting adults was downgraded from a third-degree felony to an infraction. This essentially equates the crime to receiving a traffic ticket.

To sum up, these three elements of Utah’s law dictate its treatment of polygamy:

  • Utah Constitution, Article III, Section 1: Absolute ban on polygamy
  • Utah Code Section 76-7-101: Classification of bigamy/polygamy as a third-degree felony
  • Senate Bill 102 (2020): Reduction of penalties for bigamy among consenting adults to the level of an infraction

Though this legislation collectively outlines Utah’s approach to polygamy, it is also worth noting that the specific penalties and outcomes can vary depending on the specifics of individual cases, including the involvement of any other crimes or coercion.

The laws prohibiting polygamy in Utah have been reinforced through various court rulings:

  • 1878 – Reynolds v. United States: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld federal laws prohibiting polygamy, asserting that religious duty was not a suitable defense to a criminal indictment.
  • 2004 – State v. Holm: The Utah Supreme Court upheld the state’s ban on polygamy, rejecting a constitutional right to practice polygamy.
Reynolds v. United States1878Upheld federal laws prohibiting polygamy
State v. Holm2004Upheld Utah’s ban on polygamy

Enforcement of Polygamy Laws

a gavel and handcuffs

In the state of Utah, the practice of polygamy is technically illegal, although the enforcement of polygamy laws is limited. Prosecution for practicing polygamy is rare, and when it does occur, it is usually associated with other criminal activities such as child abuse, fraud, or coercion. This approach stems from a combination of factors, including law enforcement priorities and a reluctance to punish consenting adults for their private behavior.

The enforcement landscape surrounding polygamy in Utah can be understood through various aspects:

Factors Impacting Polygamy Laws EnforcementDescription
Law Enforcement PrioritiesLaw enforcement agencies typically prioritize more serious crimes that pose a direct threat to public safety, such as violent crimes, drug trafficking, or organized crime. Polygamy law enforcement is often deprioritized in favor of combating these more pressing issues. Investigations and prosecutions related to polygamy typically occur only when they intersect with other criminal activities.
Consenting AdultsOne key factor influencing the enforcement of polygamy laws is the general reluctance to punish consenting adults for their private behavior. If the individuals involved are all consenting adults with no other criminal elements involved, authorities often adopt a hands-off approach, reflecting a societal shift towards individual autonomy.
Prosecution CriteriaLaw enforcement agencies and prosecutors typically focus on situations where there is evidence of additional criminal behavior when prosecuting polygamy cases. These could include allegations of child abuse, fraud, domestic violence, or coercion within the polygamous relationship. By associating polygamy with more severe criminal acts, authorities can more effectively intervene and protect potential victims.
Legal ChallengesThe enforcement of polygamy laws can be complicated by legal challenges and constitutional considerations. The United States Constitution guarantees certain rights and freedoms, including the freedom of religion and the right to privacy. Polygamy can be intertwined with religious beliefs, which adds a layer of complexity to the legal landscape. Courts have grappled with balancing these constitutional rights against the state’s interest in regulating marriage and protecting individuals from harm.
Impact on SocietyThe limited enforcement of polygamy laws in Utah has led to a unique social dynamic. Polygamous communities, particularly those associated with fundamentalist Mormon sects, continue to exist in certain areas of the state. These communities often operate with a degree of secrecy and isolation, making it challenging for law enforcement to gather evidence or witness testimony.

While polygamy remains technically illegal in Utah, the enforcement of polygamy laws is infrequent, with prosecutions occurring mainly when polygamy is associated with other criminal activities. Factors such as law enforcement priorities, the autonomy of consenting adults, prosecution criteria, legal challenges, and the social dynamics of polygamous communities all contribute to the current landscape of polygamy enforcement in Utah.

Opposition and Support for Polygamy Laws

Various groups and individuals have expressed opposition or support for Utah’s polygamy laws.


There are several groups that oppose the criminalization of polygamy for various reasons. This opposition can be categorized into two main groups: fundamentalist groups and civil liberties advocates.

GroupViewpointKey Arguments
Church Groups Practicing PolygamyPolygamy is an integral part of their religious beliefs and should be decriminalizedPolygamy allows them to fulfill their spiritual obligations and live according to their religious principles. Historical and biblical references validate the significance of polygamous relationships. Criminalizing polygamy infringes upon their religious autonomy and denies them the right to live according to their deeply held beliefs. The criminalization of polygamy unfairly stigmatizes their communities and contributes to social marginalization
Civil Liberties AdvocatesThe criminalization of polygamy violates fundamental rights and personal freedomConsenting adults should have the freedom to engage in polygamous relationships if they so choose, as long as all parties involved are adults and provide informed consent. The government should not intervene in the private lives of individuals as long as there is no harm or coercion involved. Concerns about the disproportionate impact of polygamy laws on certain communities, particularly marginalized or religious minority groups<br>- . ation and hinder social integration by criminalizing cultural practices that are deeply ingrained within specific communities


There are several groups and perspectives that support the criminalization of polygamy, citing concerns related to the mainstream LDS Church’s stance and the potential impact on women’s rights and child welfare. The support for the criminalization of polygamy can be categorized into two main groups: the mainstream LDS Church and women’s rights advocates.

Mainstream LDS Church

The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) officially abandoned the practice of polygamy in 1890 and has since actively discouraged its members from engaging in polygamous relationships. The church supports the laws against polygamy and emphasizes monogamy as the accepted standard of marriage within their faith.

The LDS Church’s opposition to polygamy stems from various reasons, including their desire to align with societal norms, maintain legal compliance, and improve public perception. They believe that monogamous relationships provide stability and promote healthy family dynamics. By actively discouraging polygamy, the LDS Church seeks to distance itself from the controversies and social stigma associated with the practice in order to maintain a positive image.

Women’s Rights Advocates

Women’s rights advocates argue against polygamy, asserting that it often leads to the subjugation of women and can facilitate instances of child abuse. They highlight several concerns related to gender inequality, lack of autonomy, and potential harm within polygamous relationships.

Here are some specific arguments made by women’s rights advocates:

Issues Concerning PolygamyDescription
Subjugation of WomenPolygamy can perpetuate gender inequalities, often placing women in a subordinate position to their husbands. This can result in reduced decision-making power, limited financial resources, and diminished agency within the family structure.
Lack of ConsentWomen’s rights advocates argue that polygamous marriages may involve coercion, lack of informed consent, and pressure from religious or cultural expectations. They believe that individuals should have the freedom to choose their relationship structures without facing societal or familial pressures.
Child Welfare ConcernsCritics raise concerns about potential child abuse within polygamous communities. They argue that large polygamous families can create environments where children may be neglected, lack personal attention, or be subject to exploitation.

Support for the criminalization of polygamy comes from the mainstream LDS Church, which has officially abandoned the practice and encourages monogamy. Additionally, women’s rights advocates support the criminalization, citing concerns about gender inequality, lack of consent, and potential child welfare issues within polygamous relationships. These perspectives highlight the importance of protecting individuals’ rights, promoting gender equality, and safeguarding the welfare of vulnerable individuals, particularly women and children.


The polygamy laws in Utah have a deep-rooted and complex history, intertwined with the state’s religious and cultural fabric. While the laws on the books remain stringent, the enforcement of these laws and public sentiment around polygamy are evolving, marking an interesting discourse on religious freedom, personal liberties, and societal norms.


Q: What is the punishment for polygamy in Utah?

A: Under Utah law, polygamy was previously classified as a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. However, as of 2020, Senate Bill 102 has reclassified bigamy between consenting adults as an infraction, which is generally punishable with a fine and no jail time.

Q: How often are polygamy laws enforced in Utah?

A: While polygamy is technically illegal, it is rarely prosecuted unless associated with other criminal activities such as child abuse, fraud, or coercion.

Q: Are there groups actively advocating for the decriminalization of polygamy in Utah?

A: Yes, certain fundamentalist groups that practice polygamy, as well as some civil liberties advocates, are campaigning for its decriminalization.

Q: What is the LDS Church’s stance on polygamy?

A: The mainstream LDS Church abandoned the practice of polygamy in the late 19th century and supports the laws prohibiting it. It excommunicates members found practicing polygamy.