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Reality TV 'Sister Wives' to challenge Utah anti-polygamy law
Kody Brown and his four wives, the stars of TLC's reality show "Sister Wives."
July 12th, 2011
01:26 PM ET

Reality TV 'Sister Wives' to challenge Utah anti-polygamy law

By Joe Sterling, CNN

Kody Brown and his four wives - the stars of the reality TV show "Sister Wives" - will soon be the subjects of another real-life drama, this one at the federal court in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Browns plan to challenge the state's anti-bigamy statute Wednesday, when attorney Jonathan Turley files a complaint on behalf of the family's fight for the rights of "plural families."

Sister Wives explained: A fundamentalist Mormon polygamy primer

"There are tens of thousands of plural families in Utah and other states. We are one of those families," Kody Brown said in a statement posted on Turley's website Tuesday. "We only wish to live our private lives according our beliefs."

"Sister Wives" is a TLC program about the polygamous Browns and their 16 children. They've moved from Utah and now live in Nevada, a TLC spokeswoman said. Turley said "they could very well move back to Utah," but they had to leave because they were subject to criminal investigation and the "hostile environment" was not conducive to raising children.

Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said on his website that he and the Browns aren't calling for the "recognition of polygamous marriage."

"We are only challenging the right of the state to prosecute people for their private relations and demanding equal treatment with other citizens in living their lives according to their own beliefs," he said.

Opinion: Why this female priest loves 'Sister Wives'

Turley says the case "represents the strongest factual and legal basis for a challenge to the criminalization of polygamy ever filed in the federal courts."

Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's office, said the state "has defended the state's bigamy law in the past and the Utah Supreme Court has held that the state has the right to regulate marriage and to ban bigamy."

Bigamy is a third-degree felony with the potential penalty of one to 15 years in prison, Murphy said. The law was first enacted in the 1890s and the Utah Constitution also forbids polygamy. The law and the constitutional ban were a condition for Utah to become a state, he said.

The last person charged with bigamy was Rodney Holm, a Hildale, Utah, police officer who was also charged with unlawful sex with a 15 or 16 year old, Murphy told CNN.

Holm was convicted of bigamy and unlawful sex in 2003 for taking his first wife's younger sister as a third wife. Holm challenged the law but the Utah Supreme Court in 2006 held that the state has the right to regulate marriage and ban bigamy.

Utah is the base of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, and it has a history of polygamy, which the church renounced more than a century ago. However, offshoots of mainstream Mormonism still engage in the practice.

"This action seeks to protect one of the defining principles of this country, what Justice Louis Brandeis called 'the right to be left alone.' In that sense, it is a challenge designed to benefit not just polygamists but all citizens who wish to live their lives according to their own values - even if those values run counter to those of the majority in the state," Turley said.

One case that could figure as important in the case is the Lawrence v. Texas case in 2003, when the majority of the Supreme Court struck down laws banning consensual sex between same-sex couples. That case involved two consenting adults who didn't seek recognition of their relationship, were not involved in any crimes and whose behavior was private, Turley said.

Turley said that in polygamy cases, other crimes come up, such as child sex abuse. In this case, he said, the Browns are a successful family who've committed no crimes and have children who are thriving in school. They are simply living their private lives according to their own values and faith, Turley asserted, and aren't seeking multiple marriage licenses.

However, he told CNN, their spiritual matrimonial commitments, as seen on TV, have triggered suspicions from authorities in Utah regarding bigamy. Seeing their private behavior as law-breaking is an "obvious contradiction," because other combinations of people are not penalized for having multiple relations and multiple children by multiple partners.

The Browns, he said, should have the same rights as enjoyed by other kinds of families. Such individuals should not be subject to arrest the minute they express a spiritual commitment.

"Can they be prosecuted because their private relationships are obnoxious to other citizens?" he asks.

The Browns praised Turley and his team for their efforts.

"While we understand that this may be a long struggle in court, it has already been a long struggle for my family and other plural families to end the stereotypes and unfair treatment given consensual polygamy," Kody Brown said in his statement. "Together we hope to secure equal treatment with other families in the United States."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints • Utah

soundoff (759 Responses)
  1. Joaquin Mcdonnall

    Become a sister wife today at sisterwives, we are a polygamy dating website.

    http://www.sisterwives.us

    November 17, 2013 at 11:03 am |
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  6. cate

    Kody and Meri are leglly married. The other three are spiritual. What is the big issue with the law about it? Many men in the us have a wife and children and have another woman (or women) with children which is the same thing. We don't charge them with a crime. What goes on behind closed doors are private. Its their business. Its up to the Lord to decide if it is right or wrong. Why should the law and courts focus on families like this? Their situation is not like Warren Jeffs. They are all consenting adults that made the choice to be a family. There is a difference between being an adult and choosing being sister wives and being under 18 and being forced into being a sister wife. I would like to be on the jury if this went to court ....I would find them not guilty. I wish the Brown's peace and happiness. The only issue I will ever have with a family structure like this is when a wife is under the age of 18 and forced into the life.
    Can the law and courts focus on more important issues like murders, drugs, CORPRATE THEFT, ect ect ect.
    Love to the Brown family and others like them (remember as long as they are over 18 and able to choose that life its none of our business)

    September 26, 2011 at 2:37 am |
  7. Sara

    I totally support decriminalizing poligamy when consenting adults are involved. What good would it do to throw the dad in jail or rip the family apart once it is made? If we want to punish someone for hurting women and society, then why don't we punish men who just knock up one woman and move on to the next, never marrying any of them?–cause there are pleanty of those! At least this man is maintaining his relationship with the mothers of his many children!

    July 29, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  8. James

    there is NO PROOF he isn't harming his kids...Polygamists tend to be Pedophiles, end of story, how long before he takes a likibg to one of his own girls? TLC should be prosecuted to the ends of the earth for supporting this FELONY, put him and his brainwashed women in prison and get his children to safety, there is nothing safe about the environment for these children...nothing safe at all...

    July 25, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • cate

      James....not all polygamists are like Warren Jeffs. Look at Kody and his wives ages.....they were all well over 18 when they chose to have a family structure like this.The sects that are the "bad" ones live in hiding (Warren Jeffs).

      September 26, 2011 at 2:40 am |
  9. jessicaber

    Yes, I know. I would let them do it too, but it is not a good standard.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  10. loriey

    When Kody took his first wife off for an anniversay celebration she told him how hurt she felt that Kody was marrying yet a 4th wife. She stated: Would YOU like ME to have 3 other husbands??????
    Kody's reply: NO....he would NOT like it.
    Well, if it is ok for Kody to have multiple wives, why can't his wives have mutliple husbands?????
    Because the men don't like it....that's why.
    What's good for the Gander should also apply to the Goose....WOMEN...marry more husbands & let Kody deal with it

    July 25, 2011 at 7:33 am |
  11. malerie

    allowing poygamists the right to freely practice without fear of jail time/ fines etc. is a no brainer, why shouldn't they be allowed to practice polygamy? this guy isn't marrying any under age girls, or harming his children in any way- if this is how all polygamist relationships were I don't think as many people would have an issue with their relationship(s) why is it ok for a married man to secretly have affairs and cheat on his wife and not have to worry about possibly being fined going to jail, etc. but this guy who seems to truly love and care for his family is under attack? i say allow polygamist and gays the right to marry- the whole staight, monogomous marriage thing seems to not be going so well anyways considering the nearly (last time I checked) 50% divorce rate we've got going on in this contry!

    July 22, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  12. jessicaber

    What makes the Browns different is that they want there marriage to be acknowledged. They are not just living a life together...they are going out there to the courts to say "acknowledge us", kind of like what gays have done in Vermont and New York...

    July 20, 2011 at 8:51 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.