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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. bkt

    those heifers add up to about 6-8 wives.....jus sayin

    July 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  2. D.

    Now imagine if it was a Muslim family who brought this case to court as they also are allowed to marry more than one woman at a time. All hell would break then, because we would be convinced that they want to change our American ways and that it is in a way a conspiracy against us. I say if they allow the man to marry more than one wife then they should allow the woman to marry more than one man. 40 years form now the whole country will be nothing but brothers and sisters. FREAK SHOW.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Bruce

      We already let people marry as many other people as they want. We just make them divorce first...

      July 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  3. Oompa

    BTW this is a publicity stunt because the public knows they are one wife and three baby mamas and nobody is watching.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  4. Laura

    They claim they only want to live their lives privately without interference. If that was truly the case, why did they go on NATIONAL TV to put their "private" life in front of millions of people. They want it both ways! Typical.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • M

      I think this is a mischaracterization of what they're asking for...

      ...which naturally makes it very easy to belittle (like most straw-man arguments).

      July 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  5. madgieloon

    So does this mean that the Browns also support gay marriage, considering that is a lifestyle that is engaged in in the privacy of a couple's home? Or will they stick to their religion, which is outspoken against gay marriage, and be complete hypocrites? Interesting.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • M

      Actually, they're asking that their RELATIONSHIP–not any LEGAL STATUS–be allowed. A more proper comparative question, then, would be whether they would feel that a gay couple should be allowed to live the PRIVATE aspects of their relationship as they see fit, which is precisely what Lawrence v. Texas legalized. Marriage, as a publicly-recognized relationship, is not what they're arguing.

      In this and other polygamous families, only the first spouse is a LEGAL spouse; the other "marriages" are performed in their church and are not recognized as marriages by law. Utah, however, criminalizes even the NON-LEGAL relationships–relationships where the participants are not seeking any kind of legal marital benefit, sanction, or recognition.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Brent

      M, I think you got to the heart of this. This is about Utah and the Mormon faith not wanting to be seen in this light.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • M

      Brent, not sure what you mean about the state and the Mormon church. Polygamy was outlawed in Utah in the 1800's and abandoned by the Mormon church. Some groups disagreed with the church on this and formed splinter groups commonly referred to as "Fundamentalist Mormons." The Mormon church, by contrast, has distanced itself from the practice and excommunicates those who violate polygamy laws.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  6. Wolf

    Polygamy is bad for the gene pool.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • News Flash

      Wrong. Precisely the opposite is true. Polygamy diversifies the pool.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • God

      Stupid begetting stupid is still stupid.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  7. sherrell

    Whats wrong with the people in this world?Will no one take up for GOD but me?How Many Wives did Adam have! ONE !!! If he was supposed to have more GOD would have given him more..People who do this are self centered men with a huge ego problem . They have NO sense of respect for anyone and use religion to try to hide there sins behind but it does not work with GOD .One day these people will answer for there way of living..

    July 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Matrix

      Adam also didn't wear clothes at first. Should you run around naked as well? He also only ate from fruit bearing trees. do you eat meat? Adam did not, neither did many of his descendents until after the flood.

      Anyway, Genesis should not be taken literally... nor most of the Bible for that matter.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Brent

      See Doc Vestibule's post about 10 below yours.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Stevelb1

      Your religion is not a basis for law. Sorry. Its a free country and we have a 1st amendment for a reason.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Terre

      There was no Adam in the first place. However there are many of god's men in the bible who had multiple wives.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Actually Sherrell God offered Adam quite a number of options : Genesis 2:20 "The man gave names to all the cattle, and all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none PROVED to be the suitable partner for the man". 😈

      July 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Fred

      Please do tell us the story of how god's earth was populated – all the "begetting" and "begotted" that went on. If there were only Adam and Eve (married where and when in your bible?), who had two sons.... hmmmm. Seems there would have been a LOT of incest going on, presumably with god's consent ("be fruitful and multiply"). As if any god would need little old you to take up for him/her/it... laughable.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  8. Matrix

    I'm a man who doesn't want one wife, let alone multiples. But, that is between them. The law should have no say. Just as two men or two women should be allowed to marry, then a man or woman should be allowed to have multiple spouses so long as all parties consent to the arrangement. Also, get rid of marriage licenses.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Lela

      LOL - let's take advice from you. The guy who hates marriage in general.... yeah, that would be smart.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  9. Oompa

    Legally, a group marriage seems like a mess. So five people will fill out a tax form? five people will be held legally responsible for debt, back taxes? Five people splitting 401ks, SS benefits? What happens when five people divorce, do the assets get split 5 ways? Are five people responsible for all the child support, because legally the spouse(in this situation spouses) is considered the parents? Then who ultimately decides on health decisions, there are 4 spouses? The whole thing seems idiotic and complicated. I can't see the court system on board with this.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • M

      They're not asking for formal legal marriage. They're asking that their INFORMAL relationships NOT be criminalized. (In Utah, polygamy is illegal, so they can't have married each other legally; only the first wife is legally married to the husband. The other "marriages" take place in their church, and they're simply asking the state to allow them to have these informal unions without being thrown in jail.)

      July 12, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Oompa

      Have they been thrown in jail? No, who cares. If they just shut up and went away no one would even notice them. Eventually one of the baby mommas will want to walk and she'll be claiming to be a common law wife and will want more cash, let them deal with that mess then. At least from the state's view they won't be involved because it's illegal.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • M

      But being thrown in jail is exactly the point. These people just uprooted their family (or families, depending upon your viewpoint) precisely because being thrown in jail was what was on the horizon. All they're asking for is to be able to live their lives WITHOUT wondering whether the police are going to come knocking.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Oompa

      You know how many guys in America have baby mommas? No one has come knocking because no one cares, they need to just go away. The state is not going to want to be dragged into their mess. This is just a publicity stunt for their stupid show.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  10. CSnord

    The same-s3x marriage debate opened the door for this one. Don't get me wrong, I think we need to legalize same-s3x marriage and move on to more important things because it is an idiotic issue. The only argument the State can make concerning its interest in limiting polygamy is that it impacts tax collection. The marriage deduction now applies to couples, and would continue to do so under same-s3x marriage. Polygamy changes that and results in an impact on tax revenue. On that basis, the State can prevail to continue to limit polygamy. I'm assuming, of course, that eventually states are barred from banning same-s3x marriage on the basis that the state has no compelling reason for the limit and that the established precedent is used to support plural marriages.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Bruce

      Tax collection, alimony, palimony, child support, child custody, social security payments, cost of living adjustments for military salaries, family health insurance, marriage certificates, divorce papers, divorce settlements, hospital visitation rights, inheritance, child adoption...

      There's a whole lot more than tax collection where the state is concerned!

      July 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      @Bruce
      Most of those could be worked out, but what we really need are studies about the long term impact on welfare of the children,
      just as was done on children in same-s'ex families, (which showed NO long term impact).
      http://futureofchildren.org/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=37&articleid=108

      July 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  11. Zeke2112

    Thank you, religion! More happiness deprived courtesy of archaic religious mandates built into government. Perhaps you cannot love two people equally, but that doesn't mean that others cannot.

    Polygamy isn't for me, but it's not my place to prohibit others from it if it makes them happy and doesn't rain on my liberty.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  12. Stevelb1

    Seriously, its clearly a 1st amendment right. Also, last I checked, if everyone is a consenting adult, so be it, this is supposed to be a free country.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Lela

      yep, just don't call it a "marriage" and ruine it for the rest of us.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • God

      Not "free" to break the law.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  13. Billy Bob

    Nothing wrong with this at all! I need a few of them as well

    July 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  14. God

    Using your beliefs in some deity for the basis of breaking the law is not a valid reason. Ever.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  15. bxsanchez

    Polygamists have no place in the United States. They should be sent to a 3rd world country.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  16. Margo

    How can they stand that old silly man Kody??? How does he make a living for all that clan? They all are nuts.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  17. Bruce

    Kody Brown should do what every self-respecting American does when they want to promote "family values." Divorce his first wife, marry the second. Divorce the second wife, marry the third. Divorce the third wife, marry the fourth. If ex-wife #1, #2, and #3 hang out at his house because he is helping to pay for their kids, well that's their business.

    Because polygamy is only allowed in this country if you space it over time and pretend it's not polygamy, and Christians likewise pretend that Jesus didn't label it as "adultery."

    July 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • M

      I think that's what Rodney Holm did. However, the criminalization of polygamy in Utah goes BEYOND legal marriage. Utah makes it illegal to engage in cohabiting relationships when one is already married. Only one of the four "wives" here is legally married to Mr. Brown, but their lifestyle still violates current Utah law because the other "wives" cohabit with him.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Bruce

      M, is that correct? That seems like it would be impossible to regulate/enforce. What if the other 3 ex-wives are "visiting" their children, after letting the father take custody of them? Does the statute place a maximum number of days on a "visit" where it legally becomes "cohabitation"?

      Wow... that seems quite ludicrous, indeed!

      July 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • M

      Here is the language from the Utah Criminal Code, section 76-7-101: "A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person."

      The same section also notes that "Bigamy is a felony of the third degree."

      July 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  18. Doc Vestibule

    Looking at this issue from a strictly theological stand, Christians should have no problems with polygamy as many of God's favoured people had multiple wives and concubines.
    Examples include:
    GENESIS 4:19
    "Then Lamech took for himself two wives : the name of one was Adah, and the name of the second was Zillah."
    Deuteronomy 21:15
    "If a man have two wives, one beloved and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated:"
    Exodus 21:10
    "If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights."
    King David is called "a man after God's own heart" and he had multiple wives.
    1 Samuel 25:43 states:
    "David also took Ahinoam of Jezreel, and so both of them were his wives."
    2 Samuel 5:13:
    "And David took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem, after he had come from Hebron. Also more sons and daughters were born to David."
    2 Samuel 12:8
    "Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man! Thus says the LORD God of Israel : 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. ' I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more!"
    GENESIS 32:32
    "And he [Jacob] arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok."
    2 CHRONICLES 11:21
    "Now Rehoboam loved Maachah the granddaughter of Absalom more than all his wives and his concubines; for he took eighteen wives and sixty concubines, and begot twenty-eight sons and sixty daughters."

    July 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Bruce

      Matthew 5:32 - Too bad Jesus had a problem with the American version of polygamy...

      July 12, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Lela

      Hmmm..... all your quotes are from the OLD TESTAMENT. Show me some passages from the NEW TESTAMENT. You know, where Jesus is introduced to us and Christianity is actually BORN.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • God

      No let's not look at it from your delusional book of jollies.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  19. Meh

    I could care less what people do in private as long as it's between *consenting adults.* The gov't needs to get out of people's bedrooms and focus more on important matters, like I don't know, maybe our failing country (wars, skyrocketing debt, the "recession" that keeps on going.. etc)

    July 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Lela

      I agree. But these consenting "Adults" should also stop calling it a marriage. Then I don't think the government will care. 🙂

      July 12, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  20. NorthernNeckCaptain

    I have always believed to each his own. The problem I have with this situation is: How would Kody feel if one of the wives brought home a "brother husband". Imagine that!

    July 12, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • News Flash

      Give it time. It will happen.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:16 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.