In the second season of TLC’s “Sister Wives,” in 2011, we saw the polygamous Brown family move to Las Vegas in a hasty attempt to avoid bigamy charges in their native Utah. This huge family, consisting of 17 kids, four wives and one dad, Kody Brown, uprooted everyone and moved to Vegas to try to evade prosecution. Charges were eventually dismissed against them, and then last year the Browns sued to state of Utah in an attempt to overturn the polygamy laws there. On Friday they won their lawsuit when a federal judge declared Utah’s polygamy law unconstitutional.
A U.S. District Court judge has sided with the polgyamous Brown family, ruling that key parts of Utah’s polygamy laws are unconstitutional.
Judge Clark Waddoups’ 91-page ruling, issued Friday, sets a new legal precedent in Utah, effectively decriminalizing polygamy. It is the latest development in a lawsuit filed by the family of Kody Brown, who became famous while starring in cable TV channel TLC’s reality series “Sister Wives.” The show entered a fourth season at the end of the summer.
Waddoups’ ruling attacks the parts of Utah’s law making cohabitation illegal. In the introduction, Waddoups says the phrase “or cohabits with another person” is a violation of both the First and 14th amendments. Waddoups later writes that while there is no “fundamental right” to practice polygamy, the issue really comes down to “religious cohabitation.” In the 1800s — when the mainstream LDS Churh still practiced polygamy — “religious cohabitation” in Utah could have actually resulted in “multiple purportedly legal marriages.” Today, however, simply living together doesn’t amount to being “married,” Waddoups writes.
“The court finds the cohabitation prong of the Statute unconstitutional on numerous grounds and strikes it,” Waddoups later writes.
Utah’s bigamy statute technically survived the ruling. However, Waddoups took a narrow interpretation of the words “marry” and “purports to marry,” meaning that bigamy remains illegal only in the literal sense — when someone fraudulently acquires multiple marriage licences.
The Browns could not immediately be reached Friday night, but issued a statement through their lawyer calling the decision humbling and historic.
“While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our beliefs,” Brown wrote. “Just as we respect the personal and religious choices of other families, we hope that in time all of our neighbors and fellow citizens will come to respect our own choices as part of this wonderful country of different faiths and beliefs.”
Jonathan Turley, the attorney representing the Brown family, called the opinion “magnificent” Friday in a phone conversation. In a blog post, he added that it strikes down “the criminalization of polygamy” and will allow “plural families to step out for the first time in their communities and live their lives openly among their neighbors.”
“Regardless of how you feel about the legal issues in the case,” Turley told the Tribune on Friday, “this is a decision that was rendered after considerable amount of reflecting and consideration by the court.”
Turley explained that the ruling means everyone is entitled to freedom of religion as well as due process. He also expects the ruling to stand up over time, and potential appeals, which the Utah Attorney General’s Office has indicated in the past it might pursue.
I agree with this ruling and think that it should not be illegal to have multiple live-in partners, for either men or women, as long as all the partners are of age and consenting. (Which was not the case with Warren Jeffs’ FDLS compound. The Browns do not follow the FDLS faith.) The issue of marriage rights for one person and more than one other person is a different one, and should not be conflated with same sex marriage rights. Those two things are not the same. The Brown family has expressed their support of same sex marriage. As for plural marriage, Kody Brown has made it more than clear that he does not support his wives having multiple husbands.
Since Sister Wives hit the scene, several other shows about polygamous families have premiered. There’s Polygamy USA on The National Geographic Channel (I caught a few episodes of that and found it interesting), the newer Breaking The Faith on TLC, a show about ex-polygamists which has been criticized as faked, and Escaping the Prophet on TLC, which follows former ex-FLDS member Flora Jessop as she tries to help other families escape. TLC also premiered My Five Wives this fall, which focuses on a polygamous family with one dad, five wives and 24 kids. Unlike the Brown Family, the Williams family of My Five Wives has no organized religion and teaches values of all faiths to their children. However Sister Wives trumped My Five Wives in the ratings and it’s thought that My Five Wives is cancelled.
Thanks to Frosty for the tip!
Photos are from 12-14-13 and 4-14-12. Credit: FameFlynet