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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. somebody

    In this country I can legally marry as many women as I want, and have as many children as I want, with no upper number designated, as long as I do it all at different times. Or, I can have as many girlfriends or partners as I want, and have as many kids as I want with each and every one of them, as long as it is at different times. In my youth I often had multiple "girlfriends" at the same time, and that was ok. People date and have relationships with whoever they want and it's not a crime, as long as they are of legal age. How is what the Browns are doing different than any of that? I may not personally choose or agree with it, but it is their right as consenting adults to have relationships with whomever they choose, whenever they choose, and if they want to "consider" themselves married whose business is it? Are they adults? Are the kids healthy? Then go bother someone else.

    July 19, 2011 at 3:42 am |
  2. javajedi

    Kody and his family are not the typical polygamous family. The Mormon fundamentalists of Hillsdale (followers of Warren Jeffs) are notorious for marrying their women very young and keeping them uneducated, barefoot and pregnant. Because the distribution of the women is so concentrated on the older men, once the young boys come-of-age they are cast out of the community to fend for themselves. These boys usually only have a rudimentary education, no job training, and receive no support from their families. Unfortunately for Kody and his family, the picture of polygamy in Utah is more about mental abuse, brainwashing, underage brides, and discarded young men than about loving relationships between consenting adults as depicted on Sister Wives.

    July 18, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  3. Brooks

    Marriage in any form is none of the government's business.

    If these people all want to marry each other, who cares?

    July 18, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  4. Lycanus

    .

    July 16, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  5. M G

    Until I started to watch the show I didn't believe in plural marriage, if you would really watch, everyone involed are adults and only one marriage license has been taken out. It is no different from a woman or man living together without being married in the eyes of the law and GOD. If you try to sent Kody to jail then you would have to go after everyone that lives together and have childred without a license and put them in jail too. It has nothing to do with the way they live it has to with nothing else except the mormons who think they are better than the whole world. As for the browns childred they are great well cared for and loved probably more than a normal family. Go after the families that don't take care of the childred. GOOD LUCK TO THE BROWN'S THE CHURCH ONLY WANTS TO PUNISH YOU FOR SPEAKING OUT AND MAKING THEM LOOK BAD. I think you are a very loving and caring family good luck

    July 16, 2011 at 6:22 am |
  6. SnowVeil

    Beside milions of other things, the population ratio says monogamy is God's immortal design. Asians have been massacring female babies and now China needs more females. American women, you don't need to be enslaved by narcissy men. Remember the concept of marriage if you can recall it. Your grandfathers did not die so that boys can enslave girls in USA. A gallant man loves only one woman with all his soul for his lifetime and wills to die to protect her.

    July 14, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • Bozobub

      Pff. My grandfather didn't die for OR against polygamy; he simply didn't care, and it was never on the agenda. Your analogy stinks.

      July 15, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  7. James Black

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGSvqMBj-ig
    *

    July 14, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
    • ....

      TROLL ALERT – don't bother viewing this garbage, click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll.

      July 21, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  8. Ryan in SF

    I'm curious, if we legalize gay marriage completely in the US would it be okay for two brothers to get married someday? What about a father and son? That's incest! Says who? Who are you to tell me who I can love? Then we go to brother and sister .... there's all kinds of combinations we can come up with.

    July 14, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Shane

      Same old, worn out argument used to discriminate against gays. What is the problem with gay people who are over 18, who are consenting, who are not related

      July 14, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • johnnyb52

      Nature itself says their something wrong with it.

      July 16, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  9. Ryan in SF

    I'm curious, if we legalize gay marriage completely in the US would it be okay for two brothers to get married someday? What about a father and son? That's incest! Says who? Who are you to tell me who I can love? Then we go to brother and sister .... there's all kinds of combinations we can come up with.

    July 14, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  10. jessicaber

    After 6 + years of single parenting I can honestly say that -1 husband is not enough.

    July 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  11. John

    After 35 years of marriage, I can honestly say...1 wife is 1 too many.

    July 14, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • SnowVeil

      John, be thankful to your wife that she stayed with you.

      July 14, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
  12. jessicaber

    I think that he is doing it, because his 1st wife wants him to and she is misguided and she thinks that it is a form of pampering him. I think that he really loves his 1st wife and wants to please her. He seems like a naturally happy kind of guy that loves kids and family and providing and they do exhibit the joy of that and the joy of honesty and people giving to and pleasing each other, but their relationship in this way is wrong.

    July 14, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Bozobub

      Or maybe, just maybe, she like the arrangement? A good part of the time, she can be AWAY from her husband, w/o ignoring or slighting him at all; that's not a bad perk. And if she likes her co-wives (and they like her) I cannot see the problem here. If YOU don't like it, don't get into a polygamous relationship! If someonewants to do it, it's NONE OF ANYONE ELSE'S BUSINESS. Period.

      And I'm happily married to ONE woman, so you can keep snarky responses to a minimum =3 .

      July 15, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  13. jimtanker

    I'd ditch the two on the left.

    July 14, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • nobleach

      His left? or our left?

      July 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  14. 2funny

    LOL, why dont we just legalize everything in this country, would that make everyone happy?? Alcohol is legal so why not this drug and then when that drug is legalized then why not that drug or this one or that one! Gays can marry so why cant I have this x amount of spouses? Well why not raise the legal consent age for s_ex and let those 15 yr olds have as many kids as they want too! When will it end folks??? As long as someone is getting their way then more will follow in their footsteps and so on and so on and so on and so on...America is running wild anymore!!!!

    July 14, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Shane

      Yes, the world will end just because two guys or two women love each other want to get married. ...Idiot.

      July 14, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • ZT

      You draw the line with children, because they're not old enough to rationally consent. (It's not arbitrary; there's solid neuroscience showing the parts of the brain that control judgement don't finish developing until around age 21.) I think if you play through all those "slippery slope" scenarios in your head you'll come to a shocking conclusion– people may be allowed to do things that disgust you, but they won't be harming you, and the sky won't fall. My right to swing my fist ends at your nose, but until that point, you don't get to criticize the aesthetics of my hand motions. The result is called "running wild" by cowards, but most reasonable people (and many of those who founded this country) would probably have preferred the term "liberty."

      July 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  15. jessicaber

    I am a single mom in Vermont on public assistance, because my social security income is not enough for my son and I. Some one being a single parent has nothing to do with whether or not they will get assistance. It has to do with how much income you have to report. I have gotten assistance when my son's dad was living with us and when he was not. They prefer that you be honest on those forms and discriminating against some one because they are married or because they are not would be wrong and is not how it works at all. It is need based.

    July 14, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  16. Roland

    If there were legal recognition of polygamy, then the sister wives in these relationships would be ineligible to receive public assistance. The way it's set up now, the state/fed only recognizes one spouse, and doesn't recognize the marriage(s) of the other wives...so the others are seen "technically" as single mothers with dependent children, and they qualify for a host of benefits that the taxpayers pay for (and most don't pay in a dime before getting them out).

    One alternative is to change the laws/requirements for the social nets to exclude anyone in a polygamous relationship, even if the state/fed does not recognize the marriage.

    July 14, 2011 at 1:59 am |
  17. jessicaber

    Back then...not today.

    July 13, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  18. 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 prophet/"profit" Mohammed. A Muslim female, however, is not so blessed and is stoned for this transgression showing yet again the terror that is Islam.

    July 13, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Chris Hollier

      While Christianity has changed, that's exactly how it was in its infancy.

      July 13, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • SnowVeil

      Christianity alone educated the world to be civil and established monogamy with one man and one woman for all. Human civilizations always had monogamy and everything much worse. Christianity has not changed; the access to the Bible changed people. Today's secular Westerners are perverts.

      July 14, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
    • Bozobub

      Monogamy was around lo-o-ong before Christianity, sorry, fail there; for instance, most Greeks and Romans were monogamous in marriage (which has no bearing on their actual behavior, then as now). And in fact, originally, Christians could have multiple wives, as well as the unfettered right to beat their wives (just like Islam; imagine that! LOL). You REALLY need to re-read your Old Testament, Bible thumper.;..

      July 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  19. ChrisG

    They aren't asking for legal rights within family law of their state (child custody, inheritance, divorce, alimony, medical insurance, financial ) as a legal spouse are they. Still they shouldn't have any welfare benefits either if they declare themselves to be able to financially support this sultan lifestyle.

    July 13, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  20. Bible Clown

    My friends are a triad; two guys and a girl. They didn't set out to be that way, and they aren't starting a cult, but to them it's a marriage. There are worse things in this world.

    July 13, 2011 at 2:10 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.