Facing challenge from reality TV family, Utah defends bigamy law

SALT LAKE CITY Fri Jan 18, 2013 11:13am EST

Attorney Jonathan Turley, attorney for the Brown family made famous by the television show ''Sister Wives'', talks to the media in front of the U.S. Federal Courthouse after a hearing in Salt Lake City, Utah January 17, 2013. The Brown's, who are polygamists, are suing Utah on the grounds that the state's bigamy laws are unconstitutional. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Attorney Jonathan Turley, attorney for the Brown family made famous by the television show ''Sister Wives'', talks to the media in front of the U.S. Federal Courthouse after a hearing in Salt Lake City, Utah January 17, 2013. The Brown's, who are polygamists, are suing Utah on the grounds that the state's bigamy laws are unconstitutional.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart

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SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Utah attorneys defended a state bigamy law on Thursday in federal court as necessary to protect women and children from abuse as they sought to fend off a challenge by a polygamist family made famous in the reality TV show "Sister Wives."

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups is poised to decide whether Utah's law is unconstitutionally broad because it bars consenting adults from living together and criminalizes their intimate sexual relationships.

That's the contention of Kody Brown and the four women he publicly lives with on the TLC show "Sister Wives." The family and their 17 collective children formerly lived in Lehi, Utah, but fled to Nevada to avoid a bigamy prosecution after authorities launched a probe into their lifestyle.

No charges were ever brought, but Brown and his wives - Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn - launched a federal lawsuit in 2011 contending that Utah's ban on multiple marriage partners violates the U.S. Constitution.

The case has implications for thousands of self-described fundamentalist Mormons in Utah who still practice polygamy, even though the mainstream branch of Mormonism ended the practice among its members more than 100 years ago.

"What the Browns are seeking is what most families take for granted," Jonathan Turley, the family's Washington, D.C.-based attorney, said after Thursday's hearing. "They believe that they can order their personal lives according to their views, their beliefs, their values."

He added that families like the Browns "live under the condemnation that they are felons" because of Utah law.

Waddoups, who heard arguments in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, took the matter under advisement. It was not clear when he will issue a ruling.


Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states. But Utah's law is unique in that a person can be guilty not just for having two legal marriage licenses, but also for cohabiting with another adult in a marriage-like relationship. Bigamy is a third-degree felony in Utah, punishable by up to five years in prison.

On Thursday, the judge pressed state attorneys to explain why Utah should regulate such relationships between consenting adults.

"The government has a legitimate interest in protecting people from being injured," Assistant Utah Attorney General Jerry Jensen said, adding that both the Utah Supreme Court and a federal appeals court have upheld Utah's law in past cases.

Jensen also contended that polygamous culture was "replete" with stories of teen girls forced to marry older men, boys kicked out of sects so they can't compete for young brides, child sexual abuse and other crimes.

But the judge noted that state attorneys failed to cite a single case in court papers that paralleled the Brown's family life - involving consenting adults with no collateral crimes such as abuse or welfare fraud are present.

"The Brown's haven't been harmed," Jensen said, acknowledging that the statute isn't generally enforced against such families. "They were never prosecuted."

The Browns are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, a Utah-based church that follows the early Mormon theological doctrine of plural marriage, thought to bring exaltation in heaven.

The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly abandoned polygamy in 1890 as Utah was seeking statehood.

Kody Brown has legal marriage with Meri Brown, but also considers himself "spiritually married" to Janelle, Christine and Robyn, whom he wed in religious ceremonies.

The lawsuit stops short of challenging Utah's right to decline to issue multiple marriage licenses to polygamous couples, and the family is not seeking any legal recognition or validation of their relationships, Turley said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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Comments (4)
khiggi wrote:
I suggest that marriage and domestic partnerships should be separated out once and for all. The government should not be engaged at all in either defining nor sanctioning “marriage,” which is laden with the sediment of western European religious and social roots that are rapidly becoming irrelevant to our multi-cultural society. What consenting adults work out for romantic or spiritual partnerships in their lives is between them and their god. In my opinion, government should only be engaged in sanctioning the legal contracts of domestic partnerships for purposes of formally designating domestic financial partners and dependents, including any domestic relationships where workplace benefits and finances are shared (married people, parent and adult child, adult siblings sharing a home, same-sex couples; there would be no judgement or restriction on whom you name as your domestic partner in life, which may not even involve a romantic relationship of any kind). To keep access to government and job-related benefits within a practical range, and to keep welfare, medicaid, and benefits fraud and abuse to a minimum, each adult would be allowed to designate one primary domestic/financial partner on a contractual basis that would require the equivalent of a divorce to dissolve, and dependents would have to be offspring of one or both partners or legally adopted as minor children. Any spiritual union defined as “marriage” should be the purview of churches, not the state, and the state shouldn’t limit or define what consenting adults mutually arrange as their romantic or sexual unions, with the obvious exception of protecting minors from forced marriage and sexual exploitation.

Jan 20, 2013 5:40pm EST  --  Report as abuse
americanguy wrote:
Who does the government think they are to tell adults how many husbands or wives they can have? Biblical heros had many wives. No government at any level has the right to license marriages, approve marriages, or regulate marriages, of adults. That started in the Middle Ages because the warlords needed money so they made people pay to get married. Before those times, there was no such thing as a licensed marriage.

Jan 20, 2013 6:00pm EST  --  Report as abuse
rts18202 wrote:
Sooner, or later, the US Supreme Court will rule that multi-partner marriages are legal on religious grounds. But, the ruling will more likely come in response to a Muslim challenge.

Jan 20, 2013 10:00pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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