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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. Lacey18

    "We only wish to live our private lives according our beliefs." – sorry buddy, but your life isn't private when you're on a reality tv show. Be that as it may, I don't see why it really matters. Only one of his marriages is recognized legally, and last time I checked it wasn't illegal to have mistresses or cheat on your spouse. They can call each other whatever they want – doesn't bother me.

    July 13, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • bla

      Private from the government isn't mutually exclusive with being private from the public. Just because they've opened their lives and living arrangements on TV doesn't give the government the right to persecute them, especially since they are not actually breaking any laws.

      July 13, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  2. sandralewis

    tThis is one way to take care of insuring everyone in the US! Just have everyone marry each other and put each other as spouses on their insurance plan! Hey O'bama, I solved the health care crisis!!!

    July 13, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  3. SS

    As long as only one of his marriages is recognized by the government when it comes to tax issues and stuff and not all four of them, I say whatever, do whatever you want. They can call it whatever they like.

    July 13, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • mkjp

      my thoughts exactly. if they are not seeking multiple marriage licenses, he is likely only legally married to one of his wives if that. So as long as they are not cheating on their taxes by him claiming the other wives as dependents, I don't see the issue. He is not abusive, and all of his wives are of age. It is absolutely no different than men who father illegitimate children with several women, except that Kody is actually being a father to every single one of his kids and sees them all on a daily basis. I say good for him!

      July 13, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  4. Flora

    BTW, just for all you bible thumpers – Abraham 2 wives and isaac had 4.

    July 13, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Junekid

      BTW for yo bible crushers – Regardless of what Abraham did, the bible is not a do-as-they-did instruction book for idiots. It is an true and accurate reporting of what Abraham did. It is a history and if you chose to talk about Abraham and use him as a subject of behavior, then use it as one of what should not be done or attempted, not a subject to pattern ones lifestyle after. This is the typical atheistic approach to the bible, and a sorry and pathetic one at that to disprove the bible. Bible thumpers, thump on!

      July 13, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • rick

      You mean Jacob (Israel) had 4. As far as the Bible goes, Isaac only had 1. But then there are David and Solomon, and by all appearances, Moses too.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • yannaes

      What in the world is a "bible crusher" are they hired by the religious left?? I am so confused by these terms..someone that crushes a book..maybe hired by the obama admin...who wants a job more bibles are sold than any other book, so one would have job security, that is for sure.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  5. Flora

    As much as I despise much of the mormeniszm, especially their political ambitions to turn this country into a theocracy, I must say that i support polygamy. Get the government out of marriage altogether. As long as all parties are legally consenting adults, it shouldn't matter to the state who marries whom.

    July 13, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • richunix

      Here Here. Couldn't agree more. If someone wishes to marry and have more than one wife, as long as all parties are in agreement, why shouldn't they! Just because the Christian belief (though not really) believes in one wife, feel like being held hostage.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Erica

      Very true! They are all adults, they are not breaking laws, and really its no different than all the unmarried men in this country that have multiple girlfriends and children with them all, well maybe, that these women all know about each other and are ok with it, who are we to judge. No harm done, as long as the children are all taken care of! And it looks like they are!

      July 13, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  6. Stephanie

    Wow, now certain I understand the concept of polygamy. But who I am to judge? Many cultures in 3rd world countries have extended families are a not bound by the laws we are and seem to live in a much more harmonious fashion. I think the key to this is not if we agree with their family families, but if they are law abiding and respectful. My neighbor is legally married and beats his wife and sells drugs out of his home in front of his minor children. To these family members treat each other with mutual respect? Do they love each other? Are they working or all on welfare? Do they work as a collective unit and protect each other? Well, if it works for them then leave them alone!

    July 13, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  7. Melinda

    as a lesbian, and ex-wife, I say they are the most loving family I've ever seen. They aren't asking us to support their children and seem to make the most of the situation. leave them alone. Decriminalization isn't the same as liegalization.

    July 13, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • Stephanie

      As I am certain you already know, people are ingnorant and intollerant of other people's needs, desires and beliefs if it is not equal to their own moral structure.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  8. Whatever

    If they're not "legally" married how can it be "legally" wrong. He's legally married to 1 person and not trying to legally marry the others, so how can it be polygamy in the eyes of the courts? It's not legally wrong for me to live with 4 other adults and us to raise our children in the same household, is it?

    July 13, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Sakura

      It has been in the past. In the 50's and 60's many cities passed laws that prohibited more than the "nuclear" family living in the same dwelling. This was targeted at poor and minority familes that typically had extended families living together (aunts and uncles, grandparents) as a way to keep them out of certain neighborhoods. These laws have been struck down because as you say, we have a right to live with who we want.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  9. gav

    ok so my only problem with this is people overdue things ........yes gay mariage should be legal . yes i dont think polygomy should be illegal what happens in your bedroom or house should only be your buisness. however i also think that when people do this and then have all these children they cant afford to raise by themselves and have to be on government welfare shouldnt be allowed simple as that. i also think that marriage should only be between consenting adults and i have seen in a lot f these cases where the wives are underage therefore should not be held to bonds such as marriage until they have had time to grow up.

    July 13, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  10. patty

    i wonder what they'll tell their children as they get older.

    July 13, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Aeria

      As the children get older? The kids already know. To them, it's normal. People in marriages with just two people are the weird ones, in their eyes. Viewpoint, viewpoint, viewpoint.

      July 13, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Atom Spectre

      That they are all happily married...

      July 13, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  11. DiamondSky

    God designed so and Jesus clearly taught that marriage is between one man and one woman and everything else as wrong. Read Matthew chapter 19 and Mark chapter 10.

    July 13, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Atom Spectre

      Actually Marriage was a transaction, where the wife became property of the male.. should we go back to that also? The bible also clearly states how to sell your daughter in to slavery. Jesus also sentenced a fig tree to death because he didn't get a fig... really want to follow that myth?

      July 13, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • JNX

      The great thing about the United States of America is that I do not have to live my life by your religious beliefs. Those are your beliefs not mine. What Jesus said makes no difference to me.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Sheila

      If God designed it so, why did so many of God's chosen in the Old Testament have multiple wives and concubines – even David, a "man after God's own heart" committed adultery, had the woman's husband killed in battle, and then married her along with his other wives. Yep, great role model, these God-fearing men. (BTW, I'm Christian – I just see the irony).

      July 13, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • DiamondSky

      Sheila, it was tolerated possibly because of high mortality rate. Polygamy was NEVER ordered or recommended. God's standard has been the same. Since the time of Jesus, monogamy has been the law of Christians. Read the Bible.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  12. Unowhome

    What is wrong with u people? Gay marriage and now polygamy! What's next...a divorcing father receiving the same or equal custody rights as the mother, lmao. We accept gay marriage, no problem for me. We accept polygamy, no problem for me. BUT divorce your wife and you have ZERO chance of getting your kid or true joint custody unless the mother is in jail, on crack or is a career criminal. Fathers = The only group left that u can legally discriminate against!

    July 13, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • Pearl

      Your absolutley right, men do screwed by the system.Ask us after 3 states, 3 attorney generals,over 600 phone calls, lost records 3 or 4 times,cleaned out my accounts (not married just cohabitating at time) because he was on my account for life and death purposes. He was labeled a dead beat dad, while she lied and said her child was his(NOT) to an attorney inorder to collect more child support. Had us listed for nearly 20K in back support which wasn't true and the state and fed don't want to hear that. AT the time there was a law that stated if the feds. said you owed you owe regardless. What saved us from mandated payment was she and the kids never were on federal programs..so men out there take care of your children....and remember she is to contribute the same.

      On the multi wives thing....so like a great deal if all want that...and the man can support all the wives and offspring. I'll keep my nose out of their business if they keep their hand out of my pocket..
      Most imoprtant if you keep the X and kids off any federal programs

      July 13, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  13. pam

    As long as they are of age and are not trying to use this as a way to cheat on their taxes or get government benefits, more power to them. And to the Brown family if you read this : I love your show and recorded it. My daughter and son-in-law got hooked, and surprisingly my daughter (very judgemental) was on your side. We cried when you had to move. You have such a wonderful family and well rounded children. It isn't fair. I think that you should talk about the polygamist sect that are not like you on your show, so that people understand the difference. A lot of people hear polygamy, and think Warren Jeffs. My family and I wish you the best of luck.

    July 13, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • chefdugan

      I can visualize a man with numerous wives but its hard for me to imagine any women stupid enough to want more than one husband.

      July 13, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • myweightinwords

      @chefdugan,

      It's not that hard to imagine. I'm not remotely interested in marriage myself, but if I were, I think I would want to have two wives and two husbands. That way I get all my needs met, and so do they. Of course, I'd prefer it if they were all bi also so that we could make the most of it se-x-ually, but marriage is also about companionship and sharing a life together.

      I have many, many facets to my personality, and it would be nice to have partners to share those with...but I have yet to find any one person who "gets" all of me.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  14. Al

    Sorry, did you say you wanted to "live our PRIVATE LIVES"? Admit it to yourself, your exhibitionists, and you're going for even MORE publcity and rating with this crap! What a load of wierdo's!

    July 13, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  15. Trina

    While I am not for polygamy, I am not sure that the government can regulate this. For example, how can it be legal for Senator Edwards to cheat on his wife and father a child with a woman who is not his wife, all without his wife's knowlege, but for it NOT to be legal for a married man to have his wife's consent to develop a committed relationship with another woman (or women) and have children with them?
    Whether or not the man had any kind of not government sanctioned ceremony or not, or if the woman wore a white, lacy dress or a bikini, the ceremony was belief-driven and not official. If polygamy, with only one legal marriage license is illegal, then adultery should be illegal too! On the other hand, that might not be a bad idea!

    July 13, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • Atom Spectre

      Cheating on your spouse is not illegal, it's not a crime... it's just poor form and dishonest.

      July 13, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • veryconfused

      Actually Atom... in some states, cheating is illegal. In WI there is a statute making adultery a crime. Sure, its never prosecuted, but it is a crime.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • bla

      Adultery laws are still technically on the books in quite a few states, but there's just no way for them to prosecute it.

      July 13, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  16. Reality

    Polygamy in today's modern part of the world is another word for adultery punishable by divorce and significant alimony. Of course in Islam, said polygamy/adultery for males is condoned as being blessed by Allah and his "profit" Mohammed. A Muslim female, however, is not blessed and is stoned for this transgression showing yet again the terror that is Islam!!!

    ===========================================================================================

    July 13, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  17. Laureth

    As long as no one is underage and there's no abuse going on, they should be allowed to live their lives the way they want.

    July 13, 2011 at 7:26 am |
    • Josh

      Well said!

      July 13, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Timme62

      Very well put. While it's not an arrangement I would want, as long as they are all consenting adults and there is no abuse going on...MYOB!!

      July 13, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • PACO

      thanks,you are brillant!!!!! GOD said this is wrong,but you just do whatever you want.good job

      July 13, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • PACO

      thanks,you are brilliant!!!!! GOD said this is wrong,but you just do whatever you want.good job

      July 13, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Atom Spectre

      @Paco: Which god? There are hundreds in history... please specify the mythology you are referring to.

      July 13, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  18. Momma

    Let them be! I would much rather see a family raising their children in a loving home (whether or not we believe in their beliefs) than seeing a guy running around getting several different women pregnant and then not even supporting the children. Those types live off the government, this family is just trying to live peacefully. We are constantly going after the wrong people.

    July 13, 2011 at 7:03 am |
    • Hehe101

      Be it a polygamist with multiple wives ( or husbands, if a woman), or a gay or lesbian couple. As long as the child is happy, and the parents are caring for it like any " normal" ( as the Republicans would call it) family, who cares! If the family is abusive, that's another story.

      July 13, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  19. John Richardson

    QuestionS on my mind: how many wives will employers and/or gov't programs be on the hook to extend benefits to? What will survivor benefits be like? How will equitable property splits in divorces be handled?

    July 13, 2011 at 6:51 am |
    • Anna

      He's only legally married to one of the wives. The other 3 he is only spiritually married to. The are only gaining benefits from the one union. He spends equal time with all 4 wives, and is a great father to his children, which is more than I can say for a lot of fathers these days. While I would never live a lifestyle like that, I think they should be left alone, and be free to do what they want.

      July 13, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • JohnR

      @Anna But the whole point of this lawsuit is to make it possible for him to legally marry all four. I'm strongly inclined to allow people to make their own arrangements, but these things have legal and economic consequences that need to be thought out.

      July 13, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Nuckolhead

      Not to quibble, but if you read the article, the point of the lawsuit is not to legalize Polygamy, but just to prevent them from being prosecuted for what they are already doing:

      '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,"'

      July 13, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • Stephanie

      Only the wife he is legally married to can be placed on his insurance (for a premium increase), but ALL of the children are his legal dependents and can be placed on his healthcare policy. Better his policy than Medicaid

      July 13, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Peace2All

      @John R.

      Hey buddy...

      I could be wrong here, but I don't think that the "whole point of this lawsuit is to make it possible for him to legally marry all four." From what i understand, I think they are basically trying to strop the persecution... Not to 'legalize polygamy.' I know, in a way, it may seem like they are splitting hairs here, but I think there is sufficient difference in what they are trying to do which is to stop being persecuted, not 'legalize' polygamy.

      As for your questions/assertions about polygamy in general having 'legal' and 'economic' consequences that need to be thought out... I definitely agree with you.

      Hope that you are well, pal.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      July 13, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • JohnR

      OK, Nuckolhead and Peace. You may be correct. But the only cases of bigamy/polygamy I've ever heard of being prosecuted are cases where someone tried to claim multiple legal wives who generally didn't know of each other till it all hit the fan and who are construed as victims of a fraud. Those plus cases in which there are atleast allegations of child brides. Then again, I don't live in Utah or Nevada. So maybe I'm just out of the loop re people living with multiple "spiritual" but just one legal wife being prosecuted. Also, the invocation of "equal treatment" could at least potentially raise ALL of the concerns about economic liability I alluded to. If this lawsuit gets heard at all, I'll be really interested in the details of the argumentation.

      July 13, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  20. Tammi

    I say let them marry! We now recognize two women has wife and wife.... two men as husband and husband... time to start allowing several wives or husbands and so on. Why not... most want to legalize almost everything.... before long I wouldn't be surprised if people wanted to start marrying animals.

    July 13, 2011 at 5:57 am |
    • Greg Leonard

      seriously? You just couldn't resist equating gay marriage to bestiality. epic failure.

      July 13, 2011 at 6:34 am |
    • AthensGuy

      animals do not have marriage rights... you should tell that to your horse

      July 13, 2011 at 6:46 am |
    • yannaes

      I did to my dogs, but they said I lied.

      July 13, 2011 at 10:24 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.