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Judge Rules Parts of Utah's Anti-Bigamy Law to be Unconstitutional — But Why Not the Whole Thing?

The Brown family.

The Brown family of TLC’s Sister Wives

Polygamists in Utah just won a major battle after a federal court judge struck down a portion of the state’s ban on polygamy.

It is the latest development in a lawsuit initially filed by the family of Kody Brown, who became famous while starring in TLC’s reality series “Sister Wives.”

As the FOX affiliate in Utah reports, in a 91-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups found 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. The judge says the phrase “or cohabits with another person” is a violation of both the 1st and 14th amendments and that while he doesn’t believe there is a “fundamental right” to practice polygamy, the issue really comes down to “religious cohabitation.” Before the ruling, even if a person didn’t legally marry his second, third, etc. wife  he could still be prosecuted for bigamy either due to cohabitation or “purporting” to marry.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean that legalizing plural marriages is on the horizon. The ruling doesn’t overturn the ban on polygamy, it just narrows the definition of bigamy to multiple marriage licenses. Bigamy is still illegal, meaning that anyone who tries to fraudulently acquire multiple marriage licenses is violating the law. But simply living together (via “spiritual marriage”) doesn’t amount to being legally married. Most polygamists are only legally married to their first wife and hold “spirtiual ceremonies” to marry their second wives. Spiritual marriages aren’t something governed by law, which is why the Browns were ultimately never convicted of bigamy in the first place. Kody is only legally married to first wife, Meri.

After sharing their polygamous lifestyle on their reality show, the Browns were investigated for polygamy. In 2011 the family sued, arguing that Utah’s anti-polygamy laws violated their right to privacy and their right to freely practice their religion. Upon hearing the ruling, Kody Brown issued a statement through his attorney, saying:

The entire Brown family is humbled and grateful for this historical ruling from the court today. Like thousands of other plural families, we have waited many years for this day. While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our beliefs. 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.

Many fundamentalist polygamists hope that decriminalizing the practice will allow authorities to focus on those polygamists who practice forced marriages and statutory rape because fellow polygamists will feel more free to report those crimes without fear of repercussions for their own families.

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, “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.”

Elissa Wall, who was married at 14 in a ceremony presided over by former fundamentalist leader Warren Jeffs tells FOX 13, “My hope is that this decision may begin to lift the veil of secrecy within polygamist communities, bringing polygamy into the light and providing opportunities to accurately address issues and abuses that are associated with this practice.”

Joe Darger, who has two wives and has written a book, Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage, announced his joy via Twitter. “We are ecstatic…We are no longer considered felons in the state of Utah.”

Despite public perception, polygamy is not synonymous with child abuse. If those who practice polygamy aren’t hurting anyone and everything is consensual, who cares? As Wall notes, decriminalizing polygamy will actually make it easier to prosecute the real crimes going on in some polygamous families: child abuse, statutory rape, welfare fraud — all crimes with laws already on the books, so having an anti-polygamy law technically doesn’t help prosecute those cases. But if none of those things are happening, the government should not be able to regulate a family’s private sexual roles and domestic functions. Criminalizing consenting adults for what they do in the privacy of their own home is wrong. How would you like someone to come in and regulate the private sexual relations you have with your spouse? You with the foot fetish, I’M LOOKING IN YOUR DIRECTION.

Additionally, how is having extra moms who love you hanging around a bad thing? If you’ve ever watched Sister Wives you’ll recognize the Browns as a loving family with several moms available for all of their children’s needs and a bunch of siblings who really care about each other. What’s the downside?

Image source: TLC.com

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