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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. Nicole

    As long as everyone involved is over the age of consent and no one or nothing is being harmed, this isn't any of our business. Live and let live, unless, as mentioned above, this becomes a means to be a huge tax burden for the rest of us. Which seems unlikely.

    Women get the same right though: multiple husbands.

    People who say "legalizing gay marriage will lead to legalizing plural marriage!" are right, or at least ought to be right. Plural marriage and gay marriage are both equally valid.

    July 13, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  2. Yee Haw!

    As Cowboy Kody drives his cattle-wives across the badlands of Mormon fundamentalism, I bet he makes a few secret stops at Brokeback Mountain.

    July 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Serge

      No self-respecting gay man would have anything to do with him. That hair! Those hideous clothes! Only a straight man could look like that.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  3. Dee

    God never established polygamy. The only reason Hebrew men and their kings took more than one wife was because they saw pagan cultures doing it. Paul finally insisted that Hebrews stop this practice because it was harmful. The jealously among wives is well noted (Sarah – her maid Hagar, Leah and Rachel, Hannah who son was Samuel).

    July 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Chris Hollier

      God never deemed it sinful, either. He had no problem jumping on the Hebrews when they commited sinful acts, why didn't he address this common and wide spread issue?

      July 13, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Jim

      Solomon and David had many wives too. I think it was a major deal back then.

      July 13, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  4. Shauna

    When you think or hear of polygamy you think of the places where the underaged girls who were "promised" to their husbanks or that are married off at 11. The Browns are/were four willing adults who entered into this marriage on their free will and can leave at anytime so, who am I, or anyone else, to tell them they are wrong?!

    July 13, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Dee

      You're right. I really don't care what they do. I wouldn't participate, though.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  5. TiredAmeircan

    There are couples (1 man and 1 woman) that are killing their children, abusing them, and neglecting them. But this country has to worry about morals? What is wrong with everyone? We need to focus on true criminals, not moral opinions. Our governement was not set up to impeed on anyone's personal life. They are only supposed to be there to protect and serve. Not to take and dictate! Wise up before it's too late.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • seraphim0

      Define "too late." This law was enacted in the 1890's. Not yesterday. Or even in the 90's.

      July 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  6. sumday

    I find it funny that the courts say the states have the right to regulate marriage, yet mention gay marraige and it's a whole different story. Other than paper what is the diff of a man or women sleeping around with differnt partners and living togather? If the states can't/won't regulate intercourse why should they regulate marriage?

    July 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Chris Hollier

      Well stated!

      July 13, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  7. Robert

    Those are some fat ugly women. Perhaps this isn't such a bad idea.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Roxanne7

      He isn't all that much to look at, either.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  8. Kody Brown and his Herd of Heifers

    We only wish to live our private lives according our beliefs, which means flaunting it on a reality TV show and making it a big public issue in court.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Roxanne7

      LOL!

      July 13, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Chris Hollier

      "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."

      Is the actual quote.

      July 13, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  9. Kevin

    Ever seen a farm? There's a lot of chickens and only one rooster. Do we really want Utah to look like that?

    July 13, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • sumday

      have you forgot humans are animals the only difference bt us and them is our ego.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  10. BVN

    I see a picture of morally bankrupt failures looking for a desperate payday, and it is pathetic at best.
    No one sells out their kids to TV producers and then lies directly to the public about wanting a quiet & private life.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  11. Bob

    If this becomes widespread there's going to be a lot of lonely guys around... the women will all marry a few guys and leave the rest of us alone.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • No Problem Here

      Did you really want to marry an enormous Mormon woman?

      July 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Bob

      The one on the right isn't so bad

      July 13, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • No Problem Here

      Give her time. His wives seem to gain a pound a month while married to him.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  12. Kelly

    "We only wish to live our private lives according our beliefs."

    They gave up their right to "privacy" once they decided to do a reality show......

    July 13, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Roxanne7

      Good point Kelly

      July 13, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Mimmy

      My thoughts exactly.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Chris Hollier

      You can't be that dense. It has nothing to do with cameras in their homes, and has to do with the state telling them how their homes have to be run. The presence of cameras doesn't give the state the right to walk all over you – which is the only thing I can see that you're trying to imply.

      July 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  13. Roxanne7

    While it's kinda creepy to me, so long as these folks are not living off the taxpayers I'm like, "Whatever". That's the key: As long as they are paying their OWN way in life!!!! And the ladies MUST consent and be over the age of consent. Otherwise it's no-ones beeswax. Muslims, after all, can have up to 4 wives PROVIDED THEY CAN AFFORD THEM!

    July 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Zedag

      and no supporting endless number of children through welfare payments. If this is the way things are going to go – and they probably will, the muslims will be next (after the christians have legalized polygamy – geez go figure) then welfare must end. I don't care what they do as long as no children are hurt (or married prior to age 18) and no taxpayer dollars are given to support all the babies. Regardless of how many wives you have, if you cannot afford the children, don't have them. Then next we will have plural husbands.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  14. Ray

    Gotta love those Mormons...praying to Mr God who lives on the planet Kolob with his many wives....LOL!! It's OK to have 20 wives, but NOT OK to drink caffeine!

    July 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Chris Hollier

      No need to pick on Mormons, all religions have funny beliefs. No caffeine? Try shellfish or pork in their respected religions.

      July 13, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  15. ScifiChickie

    It's about sepparatin of church & state & your values are different than mine...
    My values & morals allow me to live MY LIFE the way I SEE FIT TO LIVE IT... you do what you do I do what I do & mind you own buisness & stay the h3ll away from mine.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  16. Mellody

    What wrong with these women fighting for their right to be oppressed and subjugated to better the lives of men? All over the world millions of Islamic women protest to retain the very same right.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • sumday

      it is hard to call it oppressed when this is what they want. oppressed is when you can't do what you want. These women want it so it's not oppressing to them- maybe to you but not to them. The same is true for those crazy people who like to be whipped- I would think that is assualt but they enjoy it. Just bc you find something oppressing does not mean it is oppressing to the one going through it.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  17. bnjmn375

    If you are going to support gay marriage you have to support this, because its the same principle. Does the state have to right to define and limit marriage as a union between one man and one woman. I am not gay nor am I a bigamist, but if what is going on is between CONSENTING ADULTS, its none of the government's business.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  18. Kerry

    If gay marriage is becoming legal in some states, I don't know why polygamy wouldn't be allowed.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • sumday

      100% agree

      July 13, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  19. Timothy C

    As a man, I don't see anything wrong with this provided that women be allowed the same: to have more than one husband.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • HappyWith1

      That's just it though – very few women would want more than one man to deal with!

      July 13, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  20. Deathstalker

    This just goes to show we do not live in a free country. If someone wants to have 10 wives and all the wives want to be married to this guy so what. How is it any concern of anyone else. This is such a load of crap. It just goes to show we do not live in a free country we are only free to do what the government tell us to do and nothing else go to jail. We have more people in jail then any other country in the world. Most of the people in jail just wanted to be free and get high but because we do not live in a free country they are locked in a cell for doing what they should be able to freely do not bothering anyone.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:00 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.