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. matt

    Everybody interested in the history behind Polygamy and its relationship with the Mormon church needs to read Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven." It will open your eyes to all the hypocrisy present in the Mormon church and it's relationship with these polygamous groups.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  2. LKT

    Don't get wrapped around the axil, CatholicMom.
    The laws, welfare, taxes, and insurance is probaly handled just like divorced and re-married spouses handle their affairs. The legally acknowledged married couple file taxes jointly and get any insurance policy to acknowledge that legal unit PLUS any dependent children. Sister wives working outside the home would file their taxes separately and would have to cover their own insurance. It is even possible that there is some type of arbitration that rotates depended children between divorced spouses. And how do responsible adults plan for the welfare of their children should they die? They make a will and appoint a guardian. Who gets social security benefits? If it is the husband who dies, the legal wife and/or dependent children receive the benefits. The sister wives do not get to claim anything. Nothing about their lifestyle indicate that the relationship is any harder than a man who married, divorced, re-married several times and had multiple children in those marriages.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  3. AbraCadabra

    I would not have any laws to enforce it. I would only stop, look around, and wonder how we spoiled so, that we hold the least worthy things to be the most worthy. Or is man put upon the earth to binge and-?

    July 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  4. Stevelb1

    He should save some aggravation and boil it down to the two on the right. The other two, not so much.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  5. Lily in Texas

    Kody Brown and his "wives" are not practicing polygamy. The definition of Polygamy is having more than one wife. Mr Brown only has ONE wife. The rest are just his girlfriend. He has convinced them all, who apparently suffer from low self esteem, that this style of living is just perfect for him, errr, I mean all of them. What a player. He's disgusting.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • cindy

      I agree 1,000% with you. VVEERRRRYY low self esteem issues. He has probably brain washed them into believeing that this is the best thing around.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  6. NYGal

    The statement "because other combinations of people are not penalized for having multiple relations and multiple children by multiple partners" is so true....

    July 12, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • AbraCadabra

      the question worthy of investigation isn't who is penalized but who ought to be ashamed, and isn't. Only when a person is ashamed does he move to scrutinize what he is doing.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  7. schaz

    If a Muslim man and his, let's say, three wives (legal under Islamic law) were to move to Utah would he be prosecuted for polygamy?

    If not, why are people who move in given more rights and privileges than native born?

    July 12, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  8. sharky

    Oh did I so know this was coming. People will then start challenging bestiality and pedophilia laws too. Oh this is just way too predictable.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • NYGal

      WOW.....big difference there between polygamy and what you mentioned......HUGE!

      July 12, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Stevelb1

      I guess consenting adults being protected under their 1st amendment rights is a far cry from non consenting adults and animals aren't even an apples to firetrucks comparison.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  9. MJ

    Correction... it is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, not Church of Latter Day Saints (Please get this right when writing an article). And, as a member of this church, I am totally against polygamy so I want people out there to not associate active members of our church with polygamy. This was banned from our religion over a century ago and people who choose this type of lifestyle are not affiliated with us.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Sean Russell

      It was only banned in the 'mainstream' mormon church because Utah couldn't get statehood with legalized polygamy. If it hadn't been for that, it would still be part of mormon orthodoxy.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Alyssa

      MJ, I am a member too, and I think you misunderstand our doctrine. We no longer practice polygamy on this earth, but we very much believe in polygamy, as evidenced by the fact that we will seal multiple women to one man (this assumes, of course, that you believe those sealed together will live in a marriage relationship in the eternities). I very much associate active members with polygamy!

      July 12, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  10. Crater

    I already have one wife too many. But I wouldn't mind a few more younger ones ...

    July 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  11. DrDaveyJones

    It's about time. We've heard so much about gay marriage, one alternative form of marriage, but nothing about anything else. Frankly, it is very self-serving and hypocritical to support gay marriage but oppose plural marriage. If the genders of the persons in the marriage are arbitrary, so is the number of persons in the marriage: just because it's always been two persons in a marriage, why does it need to be that way? As for laws that give certain rights and priveledges to your spouse, you could specify which of your spouses is your primary spouses. I'm not saying I'm for polygamy, but I am saying that it's all or nothing: either marriage remains as it's been (and as some might argue as nature intended it): with one man and one woman; or else we allow any form of alternative marriage: you decide the number and genders of persons in the marriage.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • AbraCadabra

      Frankly, DrDaveyJones, you're exactly right. Once Pleasure becomes the Highest Good, every kind of pleasure is the same. I only wish it weren't. then all those who starve might eat.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • sharky

      So then are you for marrying animals or child brides or husbands?

      July 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Bruce

      "just because it's always been two persons in a marriage, why does it need to be that way?"

      Actually, polygamy has a much longer history than the fairly modern monogamous model of marriage. It most certainly has not always been "that way."

      Also, divorce and remarriage is another form of polygamy that most people just don't acknowledge. Mainly they don't acknowledge it because they are hypocrites, and Jesus called it "adultery."

      July 12, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Right. It"a called serial polygamy. Most Americans practice it.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm |

      no where in history or in recent teaching did CHRIST himself say he deny polygamy, but the church did......i can actually say i studied this.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:23 am |
  12. Suzy

    It would be great to share my husband with other wives. He cheats on me anyway...would be nice if cared enough about those other women to make a commitment.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • rATL

      You deserve better. Don't settle.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • So Right

      LOL...I mean sorry that is sad about your husband, but I love the comment.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  13. Jen

    Oh man, what a conundrum. The whole idea of polygamy makes me itch, but if they're all consenting adults (that's over 18, people), who am I to say anything? Ooo, I really hate the idea, though. Eesh.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  14. Guest

    I bet "BugEye" gets zero rotations.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Woody

      Oh snap!

      July 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  15. lazurite

    If you want to pretend you're married to multiple people and raise a bunch of kids together, more power to you. BUT, everyone involved better be consenting adults AND you better be able to financially support your entire "family".

    No welfare for the mothers, no child brides. Period.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Dante

      Marriage rights simplifies things like hospital visits, inheritance, care providers, and all sorts of things where ONE person needs to be specified. Those rights don't make sense when applied to a group – what, will they vote on whether or not to pull the plug??

      July 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  16. rker321

    I think is a great idea, the idea of having several husbands is quite appealing to me. Imagine all the money to spend.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Samuel

      How many Brother Husbands could a woman want?

      July 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • BPink

      Commenting on the one that would like brother-husbands. lol....all you see are wives with one husband. Hello....I don't see any women with several husbands. Why is that?? And to the comment that her husband cheats on her....I say to the curb he goes. No one deserves that kind of crappy treatment!!!

      July 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  17. Angela

    Let the Sister Wives family live in peace? Maybe, but bottom line is it's against the law, period. And for many good reasons. The opinions of ones who say the state and/or government should have no say, are you the same parents who let their minor children drink alcohol, as long as it's at home? (Like that kind of parenting ever works out well!).
    I also wonder.....who is supplying health care to all the children?

    July 12, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Colin

      Angela, it is not against the law unless he tries to marry more than one. He can have as many "sisters" a/k/a lovers as he wants. He just can't legally marry more than one.

      July 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  18. guest

    In order for a single mother to obtain assistance in most states she has to "claim" any income that comes her way from the father of her children, and if there is no such support the welfare department maintains the right to go after him for those funds and reimburse the state with said money for the assistance that the mother received. As such, if any of these women were to go to social services and request aid they would likely be turned down on the basis of his income, especially if he is considered to reside in the same home. It wouldn't be any easier or harder for one of these women to commit welfare fraud as it is for any mother. Just thought I'd point that out.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • spm

      In this instance some of the 'sister's also have their own homes, plus the 'family' home. they could easily apply for aid. Other plural families do the same thing.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  19. BugEye

    I bet the two on the right get a lot more "rotations" than the two on the left.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Daveid Johnson

      . . . signed, shallow in Emerald City.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Deathstalker

      The less attractive ones are normally better in bed. So who can say get the good looking one on one day the ugly ones the rest of the time. I doubt he cares he gets laid all the time.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  20. EmeraldCity

    There are people involved in polygamous relationships – and who are polyamorous – who are not religious but like to be in multiple relationships. I don't see anything wrong with it. As long as consensual adults (only) are involved and these families' children are well taken care of – the same as children of those in a monogamous relationship (or single parent households), who cares?

    July 12, 2011 at 2:53 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.