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.

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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. Muneef

    In Islam it is fine to have up to Four wives if can support and treat as equal...but the wives should not be close related such as being sisters...Woman is allowed only to have one husband at the time of any Marrige commitment....

    July 12, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  2. David Johnson

    I don't have a problem with polygamy, providing everyone is an adult. I do have a problem with them having as many kids as they possibly can. Especially, if they collect public assistance.


    July 12, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  3. nyc635

    I just love how they always manage to have allll those kids with no money troubles. Oh they're really good at budgeting and shopping in bulk with coupons? I don't believe it. Going public on TLC is worth the possible jailtime for all the $$ they get in return.

    July 12, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  4. Lynn Vaughn

    Allowing Polygamy or Plural Marriages or Gay Marriages will only open the door for anyone to be able to legally marry a dog, cat, horse, turtle, snake or any other creature on earth. By doing so will allow these people to obtain tax credits and benefits for these "SPOUSE'S"... Wake Up America, Are You That Stupid and Putting Your Heads In The Sand????

    July 12, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @Lynn Vaughn

      Gay marriage and polygamy is not harmful to society. Marriage to an animal would be cruel, to at least the animal.

      Gays and polygamists, would be against marriage to things outside their species.

      Society decides what is moral or not. It's decisions should be based on an actions effect on society. The decisions should not be based on the wants of a non-existent supreme being.


      July 12, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • John_"animal luva"_Smith

      What's wrong with marrying turtles?

      July 12, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • Clues to the Clueless

      Why is it that there is always some idiot who makes the wild and ridiculous leap to "They'll be marrying their pet hamster next" nonsense?

      Why is marrying animals or children off the table? Duh . . . informed consent, perhaps?

      July 12, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  5. T3chsupport

    I think these people are absolutely appalling. No matter what these women say, they're still just part of a herd, a harem. Their children will grow up believing that women are to be collected, and they don't deserve the privilege of being #1 in someone's life. I find that tragic.

    However... I agree with them here. As long as they aren't getting multiple marriage licenses, and their kids are healthy and happy, it's no one else's business. Having 7 wives would be like having a one night stand already planned for the entire week, and people do that all the time.

    July 12, 2011 at 9:49 pm |

    Kay, its called polyandry you nut.....

    July 12, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  7. zoopoor

    If gay marriage is ok, then who are you to say that polygamy is bad ? As long as it's a loving relationship between consenting adults, it should be ok. Bigotry and phobia against polygamy should not be tolerated. Polygamy is just as valid as gay marriage.

    July 12, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • Aaron L.

      i hope their kids aren't on welfare sucking up taxpayer money.

      July 12, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  8. Jason

    Its simply a way for him to sleep with multiple women. Take a look at his "wives", they keep getting younger, as he grows tired of the older ones. I feel sorry for these women who actually believe this is acceptable. They are simply to insecuure in my opinion to stand up foir themselves and say they want a relationship with one person. He is basically doing what a lot of men in this world would like to do, but using religion as his tool of control over these women. Its simply worng.

    July 12, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • David Johnson


      Dude! You are forgetting this is a religious think. The women believe it is the will of their god, that they be fruitful and multiply.


      July 12, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  9. Moon

    If they wanted to live in private why air all this? This is what he said, {"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."} Then why be public and start waves?

    July 12, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • Lynn Vaughn


      July 12, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  10. ImSoDone

    We all have to follow laws in this country. If these people didn't want the trouble they have then they should not have gone on television to broadcast their lives. It is not a mainstream law, either, and it seems as though the man has the advantage in a relationship like this one (IMO). Look at what he can do – choose who to sleep with on any given day and oh yeah, have as many wives as possible so when they all die, he gets their investments? What happens if he dies? They are all single with 4-5 kids,

    July 12, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  11. Matthew Jandecka

    Jody Brown... polygamist or pimp? Either or... it's just wrong!

    July 12, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  12. RamblinRosie

    In todays' day and age, I'll take a committed polygamous household over Jerry Springer-style relationships yielding any number of illegitimate babies whose mothers' can't keep the roster of baby daddies in check. I'm just amazed that this lifestyle choice is financially manageable! One Father, four Mothers, and a school bus full of kids. Can't imagine what their weekly WalMart budget must run.

    July 12, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Joleen

      The wives have to work.

      July 12, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  13. Kay

    I wonder the neighbors would say about a woman with four male spiritual partners in a relationship of molygamy living in the same house, swapping partners and raising a bunch of children together.

    Hmmmm. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

    There's nothing illegal about a man and a woman marrying and choosing to have two other female, spiritually connected partners living with them. But if a man can do, so a can a woman – equal and fair in the eyes of the law. That is the only way pologamy or mologamy can exist.

    I wonder about the 16 children and who goes to the parent teacher conferences. Does the entire group show up to basketball games?

    July 12, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  14. Christopher

    Might as well let them now that the cat is out of the bag. Polygamy has much more historical precedent than gay "marriage".

    July 12, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  15. BB

    Our society needs to be way more open minded and get out of the dark ages. These people are law abiding citizins who seem to be really nice people and great parents. They are not hurting anyone or affecting anyone else adveresly and there are no laws being broken. Their lifestyle is not personally for me, however, live and let live. Have tolerance for diversity. They should be able to live their lives as they choose, just like the rest of us. I wish them the best of luck with this case.

    July 12, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Christopher

      Actually, law might be broken. That is the point.

      July 12, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  16. heidi

    So I love the show and admit that I'm not a fan of their lifestyle, but if you think about it logically they have a point. There is no difference between them and some guy out there who has 5 different babies momma's, except that the Brown family live as a family unit raising their children properly. They have choosen their lifestyle and even their children have the choice. One of the children openly talked about how polygamy is not for her and her family supports that. I do think regulations need to be in place to prevent underage marriage and relations, but beyond that let them be.

    July 12, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Katya

      I wonder how many of them are on welfare.

      July 12, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • pooki

      What's your point ? Should being on welfare disqualify people from marriage ? Are people on welfare more likely to be polygamists ?

      Are you on welfare ?

      July 12, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • Joleen

      Well, the Mormon church never authorized polyandry, just pollygamy. Polyandry would get you excommunicated. Even if a woman's husband died, she was not allowed to marry again in the church. Sort of silly for them to whine about someone raining on their parade and all, since they have done the same. Just saying. I am personally not opposed to polyandry or polygamy, although I think polyandry is more rational, giving the difficulty in supporting children.

      July 12, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  17. Zippy

    Seems to me that if two men can marry, you can't stop a man from marrying two women, or a woman marrying two men.

    Particularly seems protected since this is part of the Mormon religion's history.

    Let people be people, for crying out loud.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Joleen

      Mormon church would excommunicate someone for polyandry... especially the fundamentalists. Even the manline church supports polygamy but not polyandry. The say "we do not do that because it is against the laws of the United States." Not because it is wrong. They do believe that polyandry is against the laws of God. Nonmormons seem to have difficulty with the concept of no polyandry in the church.

      July 12, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  18. dsteinle

    Whatever it is, it's sick and just shows how our society is going downhill. Don't say it doesn't affect anyone it does.. kids.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Artist

      Downhill since the early 1800's (mormon history)? Downhill since the old testiment time when they had multiple wives? Please clarify the basis or how you define "downhill"? Or are you suggesting life has always been perfect with perfect little christians until the last 20-30 years? Please explain and show us your great wisdom.

      July 12, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • Wonder

      "Would some body PLEASE think about the kids!!!!" *faint*

      July 12, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • brad

      Why does the people care what other people are doing in their own private lives? I thought that the religious right republicans were all for small govt. Or do they just want the laws they care about made. It is just stupid. No one and I mean no one has the right to push their own prejudice and phobias onto anyone else. Just because you personally do not like something does not make it wrong.

      July 12, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • David Johnson


      You said: "Whatever it is, it's sick and just shows how our society is going downhill. Don't say it doesn't affect anyone it does.. kids."

      And you base your statement on what? The kids seem fine. They grow up in a family that is loving and share the same problems. I see no harm to the children.


      July 12, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  19. Tdogg

    It's not bigamy if there is only one legal marriage, which there is. Since they are in Nevada now, not sure if Utah can go after them for 'polygamy' – depends on laws which I'm not that familiar with. Not sure why Utah is spending so many resources on going after this family when there likely no laws broken. I love the point in the article about how law enforcement doesn't go after others with multiple children from multiple partners – just because they don't technically consider themselves a family? So it's ok to have 10 children from 8 different women as long as you are only really with one now. But a family such as this that consider the entire unit a 'family' is against the law. Just doesn't make sense. I like them too, and enjoy the show. The children seem happy and well adjusted, and the adults all seem to care about each other, family and get along. More than I can say about many two-adult relationships!

    July 12, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • Jill

      I know... I'm scratching my head trying to figure out what they did that is illegal.

      July 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  20. poohbear

    i just was wondering is it really bigamy and why polygamy? they are in reality just one wife with a husband who has three other girlfriends. Its marriage to them but thats spiritual not leagal. no licences have been gotten they marry on spiritual grounds. so why is the law involved. why cant they live together and have children and a loving family without outsiders. i watched the show and its just a loving family living a close and loving life. i really like them.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.