Saturday, December 14, 2013

"Sister Wives" Plural Family Wins Bigamy Lawsuit // Polygamy Definition in Utah Narrowed

A couple years ago, I wrote about a court case involving the stars of TLC's "Sister Wives" reality TV show. I was kind of shocked to learn that the polygamous family from that show were being charged with bigamy. Keep in mind that they Kody Brown did not attempt to file multiple marriage licenses for all four of his wives -- only one of them. Instead, he got in trouble for living with all of his wives under one roof. Apparently in Utah, you don't have to attempt to marry multiple partners in order to be guilty of bigamy. You just have to cohabit.

So, Kody Brown and his four wives sued the state of Utah in federal court. And they just won:
A federal court judge struck down a portion of Utah’s ban on polygamy. In a 90-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups found key parts of Utah’s anti-bigamy law to be unconstitutional, specifically the language that criminalized cohabitation. “The court finds the cohabitation prong of the statute unconstitutional on numerous grounds and strikes it,” Waddoups wrote in the ruling issued late Friday.

The ruling came about after reality TV polygamist Kody Brown and his wives, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn, sued the state of Utah in 2011, challenging the ban on polygamy. The family came under scrutiny from Utah County authorities after they appeared on the show “Sister Wives,” promoting their lifestyle. The Browns argued that Utah’s anti-polygamy laws violated their right to privacy and their right to freely practice their religion...

Judge Waddoups’ ruling did not completely overturn Utah’s ban on polygamy. It did, however, narrow it to only the simplest definition of bigamy: multiple marriage licenses.

In his ruling, Waddoups wrote that the statute remained in force “as prohibiting bigamy in the literal sense — the fraudulent or otherwise impermissible possession of two purportedly valid marriage licenses for the purpose of entering into more than one purportedly legal marriage...”

There are an estimated 30,000 people who subscribe to the belief system of fundamentalist Mormonism, which includes the practice of polygamy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer practices polygamy and excommunicates those who do.
Keep the bolded and underlined portions of the above quote in mind next time you hear that polygamy and bigamy are now legal.

I have already read concerns that this paves the way for hundreds of polygamists to relocate in Utah and overtax the welfare system. That might indeed happen. Here's one way to reduce the likelihood of that: actually legalize polygamy. Instead of allowing plural families to create informal family units and that religiously united but legally separate, you will create plural families that are actually legally and financially connected to each other. You won't have a bunch of technically single mothers applying for welfare benefits. Instead, you will have a legally recognized plural family who doesn't have to live in the shadows and who can actually become financially interconnected.

Either way, I can totally support this judicial decision.


D.J. Free! said...

Thanks for this update. I haven't had time to dig into the details, and I figured it must have been something along these lines. Thanks for doing the work for me :)

As for legalizing polygamy, I'm not so sure. It's worth thinking through though. I just think the State has an interest in not incentivizing polygamy.

Jon said...

Your welcome!

Keep in mind, I'm not itching to legalize polygamy and I'm certainly not leading the charge. I'm just not convinced that it will be a terrible thing. And many of the negative side effects that I see come of it would be less negative (IMHO, as always) if these families were out in the open instead of closeted.