‘Sister Wives’ clan loses battle over Utah polygamy law

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(Reuters) – The polygamist family featured in the reality television show “Sister Wives” lost its bid to overturn parts of Utah’s anti-bigamy law under a federal appeals court ruling issued on Monday.

The case, filed after the show’s popularity prompted a criminal investigation into whether star Kody Brown was illegally married to four women, drew international attention and raised questions about whether the state could bar consenting adults from living together as a family.

Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states. But Utah’s law is unique in that a person can be found guilty not just for having two legal marriage licenses, but also for cohabiting with another adult in a marriage-like relationship when already legally married to someone else.

Brown is legally married to one of his wives, and “spiritually” married to the others.


RELATED STORY: From polygamy to incest, confronting the Old Testament’s strange sexual standards.


In 2013, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups struck down part of the state’s law, saying it criminalizes intimate relationships among consenting adults.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit overturned that ruling on Monday. The court said because the Browns had not actually been charged under the law – and the state said it would not prosecute multiple marriage cases unless there were allegations of fraud or criminal activity – the case was moot.

“Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction,” the court wrote. “They lack power to decide issues – however important or fiercely contested – that are detached from a live dispute between the parties.”

Utah is the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, which abandoned polygamy in 1890 as Utah was seeking statehood. Some sects and breakaway groups, however, follow the early doctrine of plural marriage.


RELATED STORY‘Sister Wives’ husband divorces one wife, marries another


The Brown family and their 17 children are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, a Utah-based church which follows a plural marriage doctrine.

The family’s attorney, legal scholar Jonathan Turley, said in a blog post Monday he would appeal the decision.

“The Brown family is obviously disappointed in the ruling but remains committed to this fight for the protections of religion, speech and privacy in Utah,” Turley wrote.

But Utah Federal Solicitor Parker Douglas said the state had a legitimate interest in prosecuting abuses that can arise in polygamous relationships.

Shortly after Waddoups struck down the law, a woman alleged that her polygamous husband had shunned her and planned to “sell” their daughter and a niece, and he was not able to use the bigamy law in prosecution, Douglas said.

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  • Clifton Palmer McLendon

    The penalty for practicing polygamy: More than one mother-in-law!

    (If you rearrange the letters of “mother-in-law,” it spells “woman Hitler!”)

  • Debbo

    Ahhh. The misogynist raises his deformed and ugly head briefly out of the muck and mire, then sinks back into the primordial ooze.

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    What is striking about this is that it’s the State that has the problem where the legislators say “OK, we got a problem. Let’s fix it.”

    There was a time when that was very widely true. Tennessee and Georgia are the States that have laws against snake-handling in “church” services. It would certainly be interesting to see that one go to the Supreme Court.

    Be that as it may, it used to be the presumption that if there was a problem, the legislators would fix it.

    How did we get to the point today where if there’s a problem the legislators then step in and give it a fake name, currently “religious liberty,” at other times “states’ rights,” and then exacerbate it?

    I’m serious. Why is this? There must be something, in electoral law and its biases, or in media development, or in advertising trends, or something, that accounts for the change in state legislators’ aims. I don’t know what it is, and I’d like to know.

    -dlj.

  • BarleySinger

    Given that biblical marriage was a form of underaged ex slavery (a 12 year old girls dad, sold her to some guy for a few camels or goats) I see no reason to venerate an old version of marriage. Biblical marriage also included selling your daughter to her rapist at the going rate for a virgin.

    Modern marriage is expected to be an equal partnership, and not involve a “bill of sale” for future ownership of all future sexual contact, with the woman being “chattel property”.

    Since we are not living in that world now (except in some parts of the Middle east and Asia) how about we admit it isn’t the JOB of any government to tell people what a marriage is, how many people (of what gender) can be in one or anything else about it?

    As long as everybody has given “informed consent” and there is no fraud involved, it isn’t the governments business.

  • BarleySinger

    and YES :

    * people can make bad choices.
    * there are manipulative people out there who do bad things.

    I’ve known a number of “poly” households, and most of them were in the sorts of relationships they were in becasue of emotional/psychological issues that were unresolved. People who had already passed through “the other side” of their own unresolved issues could often see this. Those who had not, could not see it.

    BUT

    – then again the same is true for most of the monogamous relationships I have seen, which is why most of them wind up ending in divorces. People get married when they have unresolved issues and their entire lives are in orbit around those issues. As a result the cannot actually see who the REAL people are around them.

    I see no reason to create (or maintain) a system of legal persecution that negatively effects how people are treated, based on WHICH type of screwed up relationship they are in.

  • Cougar Age

    Glad they lost. Marriage in the USA is about two joining to be one. Not for one man to have a harem. That’s NOT marriage. That is something else altogether. I agree consenting adults can have their own arrangements but it doesn’t fit what marriage is. The joining of TWO into ONE.