Beliefs Culture

Conservatives say Utah polygamy ruling confirms their worst fears

Kody Brown, right, stars in TLC's "Sister Wives" with wives (left to right) Christine, Meri, Robyn and Janelle. Photo courtesy Joe Pugliese/TLC
Kody Brown, right, stars in TLC's "Sister Wives" with wives (left to right) Christine, Meri, Robyn and Janelle.

Kody Brown, right, stars in TLC’s “Sister Wives” with wives (left to right) Christine, Meri, Robyn and Janelle. Photo courtesy Joe Pugliese/TLC

(RNS) Fueling debates over marriage and religious freedom, a federal judge declared on Dec. 13 Utah laws criminalizing polygamy are unconstitutional, ruling on a case involving the Brown family from TLC’s reality series “Sister Wives.”

Social conservatives who have argued for marriage solely between one man and one woman have long warned that allowing gay marriage would ultimately lead to allowing polygamy — an argument that’s both feared and rejected by gay marriage proponents.

Perhaps not surprisingly, groups advocating for legalizing gay marriage were quiet in response, saying that legalizing polygamy is not part of their mandate.

At the same time, proponents of traditional marriage did a victory lap of sorts, saying their worst fears are starting to come true.

“Same-sex marriage advocates have told us that people ought to be able to ‘marry who they love’ but have also always downplayed the idea that this would lead to legalized polygamy, a practice that very often victimizes women and children,” said Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, in a statement on Monday (Dec. 16).

“But if love and mutual consent become the definition of what the boundaries of marriage are, can we as a society any longer even define marriage coherently?”

The case involves the cast of “Sister Wives,” which entered its fourth season earlier this year, featuring Kody Brown and his four wives. The Browns are members of a fundamentalist Mormon group, not part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which does not condone the practice of polygamy.

“While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our beliefs,” Kody Brown said in a statement. “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.”

A 2012 Pew Research survey found little acceptance of polygamy among Mormons with 86 percent of them saying it is morally wrong. Wider American opinion on gay marriage, meanwhile, has evolved over the past decade. In Pew Research polling in 2001, Americans opposed gay marriage 57 percent to 35 percent. Two 2013 polls suggest 50 percent of Americans are in favor of gay marriage with 43 percent opposed.

U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups’ ruling attacked sections of Utah’s laws against cohabitation, saying in his decision that the phrase “or cohabits with another person” is a violation of both the First and 14th amendments.

In his decision, Waddoups, who was nominated by President George W. Bush, writes that while there is no “fundamental right” to practice polygamy, the issue really comes down to “religious cohabitation.”

The judge’s ruling does not say that Utah has to recognize multiple marriages, said Brad Greenberg, a research scholar at Columbia Law School. The Supreme Court has repeatedly indicated that determining who can marry is almost exclusively the province of the states, he said.

“A ban on polygamous marriage does little to deter those who want to enter into multiple marriages, some illegally, and then live together,” Greenberg said. “So Utah’s criminal ban on cohabitation sought to address these practices with a broader ban. That is what Judge Waddoups ruled was unconstitutional, because it criminalizes conduct outside Utah’s ability to define marriage, and in doing so encroaches on First Amendment protections.”

The Brown family filed a lawsuit in July 2011, saying that Utah’s law violated their right to privacy, relying on the 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Texas law banning sodomy.

In hearings for the case, according to The Salt Lake Tribune reportWaddoups focused on the definition of a polygamous relationship, asking for the difference between a polygamous relationship between one man and several wives and an unmarried man who chooses to have intimate relationships with three women.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Jerrold Jensen argued that a polygamous relationship is different because it was defined by people representing themselves as married.

The Browns have only entered into one legally recognized marriage, so they could have faced prosecution for calling their relationship a marriage, a decision they made based on their religion.

In response to the judge’s decision, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said he is “always a little concerned” when public policy changes are made by the courts.

Attorney Jonathan Turley, who argued the case for the Browns, said in a blog post that the decision “was a victory not for polygamy but privacy in America.”

“Utah has achieved something equally important today: true equality of its citizens regardless of their personal faiths or practices,” Turley wrote.

In his ruling, the judge took a narrow interpretation of the words “marry” and “purports to marry,” meaning that bigamy remains illegal, such as when someone fraudulently acquires multiple marriage licenses.


About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.


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  • I don’t agree with polygamy, but if they are a family unit and it would be far worse to destroy that family. If they aren’t hurting anybody, let them be. There are men who are on Maury Povich’s paternity show, who aren’t claiming responsibility for the children they father in their many sexual encounters. At least the husband in this family grouping is taking responsibility for his children. I would be nice to them if I ever met them.

  • I personally think he is insane (Just kidding), one woman is enough for me. I have no issue with people who love each other to be married in the eyes of the law, regardless of how many there are, or what there sexes are.

  • To be fair, the rule simply decriminalizes living with multiple consensual adults. It does NOT legalize polygamy. Polygamists now have the right to do what gays have already been doing for years: live with the person/people of their choosing without fear of imprisonment. Neither gays nor polygamists can have their marriages recognized by Utah state.

  • This case again proves that Gay “marriage” is the stalking horse that will destroy any traditional sense of marriage and family as part of our country’s laws and culture.
    The liberal promise was that Gay “marriage” won’t open Pandora’s Box and won’t affect anyone but Gays and Lesbians.
    Yet, for those willing to follow the news, it is clear that other people’s lives ARE strongly affected by legal and cultural attacks on traditional marriage.

  • The United States Supreme Court ruled this past June that once a right has been established for Americans, it cannot be taken away. There is no way for you to achieve your goal of destroying the legal marriages of these hundreds of thousands of same gender American couples. Rather than ranting on about your fool’s errand, Frank, you’d be better off learning to accept what you cannot change. Even virulently anti-gay US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia has admitted in writing that nationwide marriage equality is inevitable and coming soon.

  • Well, let’s just say this is the latest non-related event that will throw anti-gays into yet another hissy fit, but, no, Americans will never fall for your false comparison, John.

    Americans ALL know what “polygamy” really means. We learned it during the trial of the leader of the vast majority of the “polygamists” in America, Warren Jeffs, who is now in prison for criminal child sexual assault. Jeffs pretended to “marry” some barely post-pubescent girl. In the morning, after he had his “fun,” he bundled these children off to the welfare office. LEGAL MARRIAGE would have impeded his welfare scam.

    Anti-gays know there is NO real comparison between loving, committed same gender American couples and the crimes of criminal child sexual assault and welfare fraud, they just repeat that LIE again and again in an attempt to demean, demonize and dehumanize loving, committed same gender American couples.

  • “At the same time, proponents of traditional marriage did a victory lap of sorts, saying their worst fears are starting to come true.”

    That statement speaks volumes and is probably reveals more about the mindset of those opposed to marriage equality than intended. Read it closely and think about it.

  • That’s true. But hategroup leaders can’t react with outrage, blame the big bad gays for destroying the country or fundraise off slippery slope claims and fear mongering if they view the situation as you’ve explained it.

  • I think the statement speaks volumes about what the author ‘interprets’ the mindset of ‘some’ people or groups opposed to same-sex marriage. I believe in the biblical definition and practice of marriage, but I am more concerned with loving and serving people the way Jesus did than being right, and I am not doing any victory laps or I-told-you-so’s. I would rather be wrong about a person’s character and actions, and have them believe in Jesus than be right and have them continue in a life without a God who loves them. Telling people about what Jesus did for them on the cross is more important than pointing out a sin or sinful habit, since I was guilty too. I am thankful for God forgiving me for sure.

  • Victory lap?

    I don’t think so. Marriage has been redefined by the Supreme Court. Same-gender marriage will be fought in state after state until eventually same-gender marriage is accepted. Yet the unintended consequences are beginning to pile up. Polygamy being one of many of those unintended consequences which same-gender marriage advocates are now silent. They can’t actively oppose the practice except with minor lip service in the media since it would undermine their legal position in court.

    Two consenting adults co-habituating by choice to be giving the legal protection of marriage in every state regardless of gender. By this redefinition the number is arbitrary since the key defintion for same-gender marriage is not the number, but consenting adults. Consenting adults co-habituating no longer can be narrowly defined as two. It can be three, four or fifty. This is just the first of many unintended consequences of redefining traditional marriage and religious liberty.

    Worst fear? Nope.

    Worst fear is forcing the practices of same-gender marriage to void religious liberty. Marriage was a religious practice and now it has been redefined. Polygamy is just the predicted and foreseen next section of the slippery slope we are all on. Hopefully the ride will end with same-gender marriage and we can agree to disagree religiously about the definition of marriage. I don’t think so however. There is money to be made.

  • I wander what has happened to the so many called Christian believers who were proud of America, and to which everyone else around the world looked to, hoping to be able to have the same freedom and lifestyle in their own nation as well. To the true Believers in the Gospel, it’s clear that these are signs of a soon judgement from God, as we get closer and closer to the Sodom and Gomorrah’s lifestile. Unfortunately, as it happened to the people of Israel in the desert, because of the rebellion of some of the chiefs of the people, all had to go through the punishment of roaming around in the desert for forty years going nowhere, when they could have been in the Promised Land in just Forty days! …All of America, plus all the other nations who will be influenced by theyr lifestyle, will call the judgement of God upon themselves, and that’s why Jesus told the people to “strive to enter through the narrow gate”, because many that day would like to enter into …Heaven or into the Kingdom of God, but they cant! I am only reminding everyone what the Bible has already said! …If you believe in the Bible (God’s Word), refuse and fight against gay’s lifestyle, poligamy and any other sin mentioned in the Word of God! …Jesus is coming back very soon, and the tragedy is that 99% of the world population, will be going to Hell (Eternal Torment), unless they repent and get right with God before it’s too late!

  • Real marriage will never be anything but one man plus one woman in the yes of God. So you are not right that the fight is over. There never was a fight. Can’t change the truth.

    Time will show what a terrible decision people have made destroying true marriage and the family unit.

  • Its only a victory lap or “sliding scale argument” vindication if you are dishonest or ignorant enough not to bother reading the news beyond sensationalist titles. From your post, you are one of those two.

    Polygamy by law, multiple marriages licensed and solemnized by the state is still illegal and completely unaffected by the law. The Utah Law forbid people living like polygamists but did not actually break any other laws. The LDS was attempting to banish polygamous living from their sight even if legal otherwise.

    There is a big difference in the laws concerning SSM and polygamy. Your inability to understand them is more a function of your ignorance or unwillingness to make rational arguments than anything else. SSM fits in neatly with our gender neutral laws concerning marriage. Polygamy is a holy mess in regards to any laws concerning marriage.

    As for your religious liberty, there has never been the right to treat other people like crap based on your religious beliefs. It didn’t hold water for the Southern Baptists who claimed segregation was inspired by God, it won’t for any other kinds of bigots. I don’t have to recognize a right for you to discriminate, religiously inspired or not.

  • People like yourself, those who are inhospitable and hostile to those but your own get us closer to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah than we have before. You should really go back and read your Bible on the subject. The sins of Sodom are the oldest sins in civilized society, treating strangers badly. Something you wholeheartedly support.

    Polygamy is supported by the Bible so is marriage as a commercial transaction or compensation to a father for rape. A freewheeling lifestyle involving women kept as concubine chattel property is also a major part of Biblical definitions of marriage. Lets face it the Bible has nothing to do with modern notions of marriage. Ancient Greek and Roman civil laws do. You know what kind of lifestyles they had 😉

  • You are assuming that they will portray the situation honestly. So far we haven’t seen conservatives do this.

    They have been lying like cheap rugs claiming the law permits polygamy when it clearly did not.

  • ” I believe in the biblical definition and practice of marriage”

    So that means you approve of:
    -Marriage in exchange for goods paid to the father of the bride
    -Use of sexual slaves to make up for a barren wife’s inability to bear children
    -Marriage as payment to a father of a woman raped
    -Compulsory marriage of the widowed wife of your brother
    -Putting your spouse to death should they not accept your faith as their own
    -Taking a woman as your wifes as the spoils of war

  • In a prescient prophetic New Oxford Review Note, “There Goes the Village” (Nov. 2012) the case was made that the world is careening down the path to legalized polygamy, polyandry, and incest. Based on what we’ve already accepted from our Supreme Court — the creation out of whole cloth of so-called constitutional rights to abortion, and to sodomy — there is nothing to prevent the Court from similarly exercising its assumed almighty legislative power in legislating from the bench its morality and creating a constitutional right not only to polygamy, but to many actions now called perversions. The recent lower court ruling finding laws on polygamy unconstitutional implicitly creates the right to polygamy. Like the “right” to abortion — which was heretofore “hidden” in constitutional shadows intentionally put there by our Founding Fathers in 1781, but penetrable only by today’s divine-wise judges — we can expect constitutionally guaranteed rights of every American to have sexual intercourse with her dog, with his dead mother, with minors, with multiple spouses, with his children, or with her favorite cow or oak tree. And the right to any kind of sexual act simultaneously with as many people as one wishes, everyone who “likes” them in social media. Imagine the “teaching materials,” complete with detailed diagrams, that Planned Parenthood will provide our kindergarten and elementary schoolchildren, with “no parents allowed” mentoring and field trips! Imagine how proud the Progressives will be in the “We love our Animals and Children” parades, engaging in public sex on flower-decorated floats. No liberal/progressive constitutional law scholar can deny that under constitutional “principles” as they are in effect today, the “rights” to perverse sex are on their way. Sex with your maltese puppy ? Welcome to Progressive Eden. Sex with your seven year old neice, or nephew ? Welcome to Liberal Paradise. The only lawsuits in the future will be those in which the ACLU challenges laws that require the constitutionally-protected rights to bestiality, pedophilia, necrophilia, pederasty, and incest to be exercised in private. And the ACLU will win. Guy McClung, San Antonio

  • Thank you for comparing my want to marry more than one person to wanting to have sex with farm animals. That makes me feel like a much better human being, and comparing my partners to farm animals makes them feel like truly blessed individuals. Thank you, Guy McClung. 😀

  • Totally agree with this. If we were to define marriage by the bible there are many good men in the bible who lived polygamy. abraham Jacob, David, etc. However sodomy is definately not acceptable by bible standards. It is interesting that we are willing to accept sodomy (a biblical sin) before polygamy, biblically acceptable before God. Also equally interesting that gay rights activests want rights for themselves but not their fellow americans who believe in polygamy as a religious practice. I applaud this judgez decision because I always considered the polygamy marriage issue not only a religious rights infringement but an issue of seperation of church and state. This judge apparently sees it as the same issue. Let state marriages be governed by the state and church marriages be governed by the church. And let the state leave church marriages alone and stop persicuting church marriages. Where a legal state marriage is sought illegally then let the the state get involved but a church marriage? No. Then rights would be maintained for both the church and state. Kudos to this judge for seperating church and state in this issue.

  • I personally think that only two people be together be it man and woman or man and a man or a woman and woman but only between two people

  • That’s the problem Jess you can’t legalize gay marriage like you & so many women would like to do and have it stop there. Be prepared to have your someday husband maybe decide after a few years he wants a second wife because soon it will be legal thanks to women like you. When you change the biblical definition of one man & one women it doesn’t stop there. And all you people saying the bible condones multiple wives it doesn’t. In the Old Testament men took multiple wives and God frowned on it but it wasn’t until Jesus came and said that marriage should be one man & one women. I believe Gods own son more than I do people who didnt know better in the Old Testament.In Matt. 19:4 we are told by Jesus that God created one “male and [one] female” and joined them in marriage. Mark 10:6-8:”But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, ‘and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh.
    The two as one is the pattern on how marriage was to be conducted from the start. NOT three or four as one.

  • I am what most would consider liberal. Live in NYC for 20 yrs – and have a high tolerance in general but there is nothing I disagree with more than polygamy. This does not instill any sense of self worth in the daughters of these women. It is sad how uneducated or uninformed. Even a couple of kody’s wife realise how they were manipulated into this life style. I think Jenelle is only one who has gut to break free of that family. Now that is a show I would watch!!! And I am thrilled. Jenelle’s kids ( boys and girls) have enough self worth and intelligence to not be polygamist. You can do it Jenelle!!!

  • When ever someone does nt like what others do they speak there dislikes use God and the bible to vilified everything else

  • Does it affect you in any way if people who love each other live together? I dont understand how it possibly could.

  • Ever heard of consent? There is a difference between having sex with an adult or multiple adults who consent and having sex with a child. Get a hold of yourself man.

  • Frank, you refer to God as your source of morality? Is that the God of Abraham, Isaak and Jacob? (2 wives, 2 wives and 4 wives, respectively)

    Marriage is between a Man and Woman. Each union is its own entity, created or destroyed individually. The entirety of the Old Testament and Jewish tradition shows us that polygamy, when practiced as God dictates, is beneficial to all.

    When a married man died, his brothers or male cousins were obligated (but not coerced) to take on his wife and children, and even have more children with her and give those children the man’s inheritance. This way there are no (or fewer) widows and single mothers.

  • Able, please tell me where in the Bible you found where God said that polygamy is a sin. If God is the same today, tomorrow and for ever why would he bless something in the past and call it a sin in our day. Haven’t you where David a man after God’s own heart had 14 wives, and Abraham a man that God blessed had 2 w
    Wives an a number of concubines. And if study more you’d that most of the men that served God had more than one wife and/or many concubines. And at no time did God tell them that they were sinning. Even the 12 tribes of the children of Israel Gods chosen people came from 2 wives and 2 concubines, it seem to me that God could not and would bless children from a sinful marriage, plus the father that fathered them. And lastly if Satan and all those fellow him will be destroyed when Jesus returns (Revelation 20:10-15) who will be in hell. If you know more than my Lord and the scriptures then you in the wrong place.

  • What gays have been doing for years? They make up 5% of the population. Some of you totally reject the fact that non gays have been living together unmarried ,WHAT ? 50% PLUS ?