PHOENIX — Members of the House of Representatives gave preliminary approval Thursday to legislation designed to end the practice of children being forced into polygamous relationships.
SB 1335 would make it a crime for someone who already has a spouse to marry a child. It also would make criminals of those who causes such a marriage or transports or finances the transportation of a child to promote such a marriage.
Arizona has a constitutional prohibition against polygamous relationships but there are no statutes specifically making that a crime. There is a law banning plural marriages but that applies only when someone obtains a state-issued marriage license while still legally married to someone else.
This legislation contains a special definition of marriage to include any joining as husband and wife, whether or not there is a marriage license and whether or not it is recognized by the state. That is designed to address what happens in polygamous communities where a husband legally “marries” only one woman, with subsequent brides recognized only by the church.
Child polygamy is practiced by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. That is a break-away sect of Mormons who have settled in Colorado City on the state’s northern border and across the line in Hilldale, Utah.
Thursday’s vote came over the objection of Rep. Wally Straughn, D-Phoenix.
Straughn said he is not in favor of forcing children into these kinds of relationships. But he said it was not necessary to put language into the state’s criminal code dealing with plural marriages to prevent that from happening.
His alternative would have kept the same prohibitions but instead made those who violated those provisions guilty of aggravated child abuse.
That was designed to address the concerns of residents of Centennial Park, a separate community near Colorado City where some residents also practice polygamy.
Several testified during committee hearings that they do not allow plural marriages involving children. But they fear that putting a new definition of marriage into law will open the door to prosecution of consenting adults in polygamous relationships.
The measure still requires a final roll-call vote. The Senate already has adopted similar — but not identical — language.
In other news, the owner of property in the polygamist enclave of Colorado City should be allowed to evict tenants without cause or reason, an attorney for the church and its trust argued before a Mohave County Superior Court judge.
Judge James Chavez is deciding whether Ross Chatwin, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, can be evicted from property owned by the church’s trust.
Chavez said Wednesday he expected to rule within 30 days.
Rodney Parker, attorney for the church and the trust that owns much of the property in Colorado City, said the trust has the authority to evict Chatwin without cause.
Chatwin, a former church member, denounced the church’s dictates in a news conference in January.
His attorney Joan Dudley argued Chatwin grew up being taught that he could live on the trust land for life.
Chatwin testified that he was encouraged by church officials to build a home and make other improvements during his period of residency.
If he’s forced to leave, he should be compensated for improvements he’s made to the property, she said.