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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. Suz

    And this is what happens when marriage isn't narrowly defined as one man, one woman. Cue the floodgates.

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

      when marriage becomes what it was intended to be ie a spiritual lifetime "love and caring for one another" commitment between you, your partner and God things will get better – right now it's really between you and the gov. and they have got all the incentives and rewards screwed up so we have this high divorce rate – why should women stay in a marriage and work it out when the gov system offers them the kids (control and manipulation of the man and his assets) and over half of what it took him up to her to acquire for a few short years of marriage and a baby or two? The gov is what has screwed this all up – if THEY would get out of our lives and we go back to the way it was intended and work out the problems in our faiths and community social resources that will try and keep families together we would all be better off

      July 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • Bruce

      The floodgates were opened long ago when Moses allowed people to divorce and remarry and didn't call it "adultery" as Jesus did later...

      Polygamy is just divorce and remarriage with half the paperwork...

      July 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • News Flash

      @guest
      And just how was it "supposed to work". When you figure out where exactly to set the clock back to, be sure and let us know. Suggest somewhere after where women were considered "property", and after it was ok to beat them to death.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • guest

      @newsflash

      that is the kind of modern PC extremist rhetoric that so many of you use to stop all changes to the better in our culture, economy and world – and so the Gov should come in here break up this home, shame the parents and children publiclly, put their dad and maybe a couple moms in prison and that is a civilized solution – sounds barbaric to me and counterproductive – my point was leave them alone – if they are not harming you or their children – let them raise them in what love they have – I'd bet you (and I) don't have 1/10th of the family warmth and caring they all get ...

      July 12, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  2. MS

    I don't see the difference between gay marriage and polygamy marriage.

    Both lifestyles are specifically mentioned in the Bible.

    But hey, if gay marriage is made legal, why not multiple marriage mates?

    You can't discriminate against the Mormons! You can't have it both ways! The door has been opened, so good luck trying to shut it.

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

      "I don't see the difference between gay marriage and polygamy marriage."

      That says it all about you if you don't understand the difference.

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

      Next week, someone will sue to marry his goat.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Peter

      "Next week, someone will sue to marry his goat."

      It's amazing that people can get it through their thick heads that its about consenting adults, animals can't consent.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Reality Check

      Teamroper, you are a dim bulb indeed. A goat can never legally consent while a legal adult may. I agree that there is no difference between a gay couple and these people since both instances are legally, consenting adults. The funny thing is that most fundamentalist Christians don't understand in their fight against gays is that polygamy IS Traditional marriage.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  3. k

    what does it matter...divorce rates over 50%...multiple families with multiple children from different parents. You this this is the biggest problem there is to deal with...how cares let them do what they want it does not imparct your way of life so who are you to tell them what to do.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  4. teamroper

    Pretty soon they'll want to let gays get married...

    July 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • YaThink

      They can already get married in several states. Plus, it's being found unconsti-tutional in the courts to block them from getting married, it's only a matter of time before they can in every state.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  5. Bookenz

    I'm all for plural marriage as long as it works both ways. Women should be able to have more than one husband too!

    July 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Frank

      One man and many wives is in accordance with nature. Look at apes (our cousins) and other mammals. Thats our history. For Mormons, it's about big families, and polygamy only makes sense one way. A man with 4 wives can have 4 babies at once, and everybody knows who each childs parents are. A woman with 4 husbands can only have 1 baby at once, so it accomplishes nothing in terms of offspring, and only causes confusion about who the daddy of the one baby was.

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

      Polygamy is just a broad term. The form of polygamy where one man has more than one wife is called polygny. The form of polygamy where one woman has more than one husband is called polyandry. Polygamy, specifically polygny, is the leading type of relationship in the world, because it promotes genetic diversity. Though the relationship you are describing does exist, it is less popular.

      July 19, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  6. guest

    really, what business does gov have getting involved in a loving healthy home relationship arrangement like this when they promote by their own actions welfare moms with 5 to 10 different non participating fathers, scores of temp live in boy friends, most of us have at least one divorce or two and multiple sets of kids and extended parents so I guess the real message of the GOV is it's ok if you hate each other or can not get along as parents, divorce, remarry, keep them babies coming but if you all get along and love each other and stay in the same home you are evil and law breakers – oh yes, now it makes sense to me – the hate lovers and love haters....

    July 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  7. Retired GySgt

    Listen to all these idiots here that want to control others.. I thought the republican mantra was 'leave me alone' "government off my back"... but the hypocritical hyperbole here is astounding. ESPECIALLY from these hard core right wingers!

    July 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  8. Sarah Lavigne

    The Browns should be left alone. They are a very happy and healthy family. More families should be as happy and have such great parents as this famiily. Also, the children all seem to be so happy and have a genuine love for each other. Leave them alone and find someone else to pick on. If it works for them, and it does, we should all stay out of their private affairs.

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

      You know that the law already states that the one "legal" wife of Brody has the right to divorce him and take like half or almost all of the TV money because infidelity is positive grounds for divorce and a moderately-good divorce lawyer could really rake him over the coals in this case–assuming there is a lot of TV money to be had.

      The government is already involved in this "relationship choice." They are poised to strike should Brody's legal wife get greedy...

      July 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  9. DeeCeeBC

    Ha ha, Joe. Oh, you're serious?

    Why is polygamy, where there is no child or spousal abuse (as in any other relationship) so threatening?

    I'm glad these people have the guts to put their lives on a reality show and demonstrate that they too, are simply human beings trying to make their way in a bizarre world in the best way for them.

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

      The guts to put them selves on TV? Seriously,you think they do the show 100% to show they are a happy family? The money doesn't have anything to do with it? I would argue it has EVERYTHING to do with the show. If they just wanted to life their lives alone they would stay out of the spotlight.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  10. Skyy

    This would be a perfect time to separate government and religion like the moral majority wants to do at all convenient times. No prayers in school, the 10 Commandments can not be on display in public places, no perceived religious art in public places i.e. libraries, federal buildings, etc.. Then everyone can live in one-sided harmony. The government needs to leave these people alone and concentrate on the real issues plaguing our country!!

    July 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  11. who cares

    My friend has 3 babies to two women...never married...is that illegal? All 3 parents get along, is that illegal? This is so stupid and such a waste of time and money. With all the issues, the private lives of 5 adults is what our leaders are worried about?

    This, my friends, is why this country is a dying place...Leave law abiding citizens alone to be who they want to be!!

    July 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Zedag

      but they are not law abiding. If you obey the laws than no problem, if you don't you get to be a story in CNN with loads of stupid comments.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  12. MySnakeReggie

    They could at least pick a good looking guy to marry, he doesn't seem to be much of a catch.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • MadCityBabe

      the women arent major lookers either

      July 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  13. 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...

    Yeah right... This is about the private choices that consenting adults make regarding what happens or doesn't happen in the bedroom. Sure it is...

    July 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  14. Jeana

    Well....if that polygamy measure passes then Utah will have to renounce it's statehood. Remember from 5th grade history class that Utah was only allowed statehood in the union if it banned polygamy? Sounds good to me....one less state on the dole for federal money!

    July 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  15. Stevelb1

    Some how the small government free country conservatives have an issue with this. Such hypocrites.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  16. ds

    These people have 4 people that can work and are being paid by a TV network and the husband is driving around in a fancy car AND NOT MAKING THEIR HOUSE PAYMENT IN UTAH (and weren't before they moved to Vegas).

    July 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Brent

      Then they should take his house away from him, not persecute his lifestyle choice.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  17. g

    Really it seems contradictory to claim that the govt has no right to interfere with your private life, when your private life is aired on television. Doesn't seem all that private at that point.

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

      i agree. just like when someone becomes a celebrity and put themselves out there to the public willingly, knowing full well that if they become famous that they're going to be scrutinized and their privacy will be gone.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  18. Joe

    Thats What happens....Legalize gay marriage then other groups will be asking for "equality" and this country will turn into anarchy

    July 12, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Cobra4j

      That's basically what I tried to say, but my post seems to be stuck.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Chicken Little

      The sky is falling, the sky is falling.....run quick....because people like you are what creates anarchy. Keep the gov't out of our bedrooms!

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

      Freedom can be so darn messy!

      July 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • WhateverJoe

      Polygamy is already legal in Utah, they are not asking for equality, they are trying to prevent the anti-polygamy law from going into effect. This has nothing to do with the gay rights movement.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • MS

      Government should stay out of all bedrooms including yours.

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

      @Joe,
      I fail to see how ho.mos.exual marriage and/or polygamy leads to anarchy. But I'm sure you have you reasons.

      @Whatever Joe,
      Polygamy is *not* legal in Utah nor any US state.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  19. Nokat

    When will this country put it's foot down and quit giving in to today's weapon of choice "MY RIGHTS" and "EQUAL TREATMENT" my ass

    July 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Joe

      U have the right idea

      July 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Josh

      Yeah, what's with all these stupid people wanting their rights. You know, those uppity black people thinking they can eat at the same restaurants and those pesky women wanting to vote. Jeesh, you'd think this was America or something.

      I think you'd be better off in Belarus or some other dictator-run country. America is clearly not the place for a myopic, small-minded person such as yourself.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • HUh

      ""MY RIGHTS" and "EQUAL TREATMENT""

      So do away with equal treatment huh? Wow why don't you move out of this country then if you believe that because that is what it's founded on......The Equal Protection Clause, part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Consti-tution, provides that "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws". The Equal Protection Clause can be seen as an attempt to secure the promise of the United States' professed commitment to the proposition that "all men are created equal"

      July 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Nonimus

      So you disagree with the Consti.tution and "EQUAL TREATMENT" under the law?

      July 12, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  20. Jake

    Legalize gay marriage/domestic partnerships before wasting time on something like this.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • AL

      This actually has nothing to do with gay rights or gay marriage, I don't see the comparision at all. Being gay is not a choice, there have been many studies that show it is a genetically pre-disposed condition for some people. In this day & age with all the std's & so forth I think managomy in any form should be encouraged. Polygamy however is physically unhealthy, & often leads to other crimes like child molestation & underage marriage. Leagalizing such a thing is just an encouragement to such child molesters.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:05 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.