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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. Jacob

    @ Joe Sterling: The official name of the Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Please see http://newsroom.lds.org/style-guide for proper notations in reference to the Church.

    Thank you.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  2. KAte

    I've watched the show.....loving parents, good children.......all for the lifestyle they choose....they are doing a hell alot better than many people I've seen that are in a traditional marriage.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • John

      You see what the producers want you to see. You could go to 90% of families, follow them for a week with a camera, and have enough material to make up an hour of them being demons or saints, especially if young children are involved.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  3. Grundoon

    I don't like to share, personally, but if other wish to be polyamorous I don't see a problem so long as there full disclosure and between adults, and non manipulative. There are those that have a poly lifestyle that is self-serving – and maybe Cody et al's is – in that the replationship has to be open to prevent infidelidy but that is not the same thing. That's just emotional blackmail.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  4. spellbee

    hey there sister wife..get the hell out its my night!

    July 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  5. ART

    Meg apparently it is your place to judge,who made you the moral compass of America. You cannot tell other people what they can and cannot do, but I do think this whole polygamy thing is weird a marriage should be between two people.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Joe Velasquez

      See, to one person gay marriage is weird, to others polygamy is weird. So whose moral compass do we follow?

      July 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • John

      I don't think the argument that it's "weird" is enough to prevent it. Let's list actual reasons for or against it, like how to actually divide possessions in case of death or a divorce from one of the wives (or husbands, if it went the other way). Could there be cases of multiple husbands and multiple wives in one big family? What would be the tax laws regarding such unions? Do the unions dissolve if the husband or wife (whichever there's only one of) dies or are the others still bound to each other somehow? Issues get very tricky in a hurry.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  6. MargaretG

    The problem is that the state shouldn't be involved in marriage. Marriage is a religious sacrament. If people want to have financial contracts with each other then that should be permitted. This way marriage is left for the churches and financial agreements are left to the lawyers. That is as I think God intended.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Joe Velasquez

      I agree with this somewhat, but the government, insurances and others issues need to be defined as well.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • aahawks

      Marriage is not religious. Marriage is government. You can get married without the church, but you cant get married without that piece of paper from the government.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Ituri

      Marriage had nothing to do with religion unless you AGREE it is religious for YOU. It is not a religious sacrament, it is a legal contract of cohabitation. If you CHOOSE to have a religious marriage, fine, but don't pretend you OWN marriage itself just because you LIKE your religious marriage. My marriage is 11 years old and going strong, 2 atheists here. So is my marriage somehow less valuable than yours? Please, you embarrass yourself with such overarching claims.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • John

      I kind of see your point, but it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. If marriage is religious, then one of two things must be admitted, either: 1.) All religions are equal in this, or 2.) One is right and the others are false. If you claim the former, then I would say that atheism is, in a way, its own religion, since it makes chance, in essence, God; thus any state that does not allow religion to interfere with its laws (though, let's be honest, every politician brings their own beliefs to work with them, whatever they are) still believes in something and would thus be "religious" under this definition. This claim also implies equality in the validity of all religions. If you claim the latter, then you'd have to also state that only marriages performed by one religion are valid, but all religions naturally claim to be the way, so you are left with an endless battle.

      What it boils down to is that some people view marriage as little more than a financial contract, and to the state, that is what it is. It is the choice of those involved to make it religious and hold it sacred if they desire.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Agree totally. I also think "marriage is a sacrament", and the churches can do whatever they want. For the rest it should ALL be civil unions, blind to gender, (and ALL it's many many physical and psychological variations), and se'xuality and THAT is what the state is about. In the European Union, you can have a civil union with your grandmother, for inheritance purposes. So what ? But due to historical and existential realities, we all call them "marriages" so it is far too late at this point to restrict "marriage" to religious insti'tutions, or a narrow religious definition. Do you see last week Prince Albert had both a civil and a church wedding ?

      July 12, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Wes

      I agree with you that marriage is a a religious affair with all the hoopla and celebrations of love etc. Civil unions are another matter. Here, too, the government steps into something it should not. The reason for a civil union is that people have children and property: if a child or spouse gets hurt, someone needs the legal authority to deal with the issues arising from that.

      Also, in case of divorce, there must be a judgement considering custody and property division.

      Imprisoning folks for what are private, non-violent affairs has gone on too long; we have a government at war with its citizenry.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      BTW, did you know they had same s.ex civil unions in Europe between male couples 600 years ago ?
      http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2007/08/medieval-europe-recognized-civil-unions-steve-clemons/225782/

      July 12, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • John

      @Wes and BuckyBall,
      If civil unions and marriages have the exact same privileges, responsibilities, rights, and liabilities, what is the difference between them? You take it down to semantics of whether they're performed by a judge or priest (pastor, rabbi, etc.). You might as well call all of them one thing or the other and let those in them determine the role they want religion to play in their marriage/union.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  7. jjue

    It's sad that the country see polygamy as only a white man sin, totally ignoring the fact that our tax dollars funds women in poverty to produce children by as many men as she so desires. There are just too many fatherless children being born and far too many women being turned into breeding slaves by this country.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Smith

      "It's sad that the country see polygamy as only a white man sin, totally ignoring the fact that our tax dollars funds women in poverty to produce children by as many men as she so desires."

      Be careful, you almost sound like a racist. Jjue, studies show a large majority of those "women in poverty" sleep with several men, most of different races.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • jjue

      Yep! That's how we solve problems in this country. We accuse each other as being racist anytime a problem occurs in our society! This is nothing more than fear and guilt that drives this disease in our country, not unlike the German Nazi society drove their disease. It is what I call Inverter-Nazism. Controlling people out of fear and guilt. You are certain part of that disease.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  8. Debb

    This is how village idiots are made.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  9. Lela

    Let's clear things up.... cuz I know many of you are angry with me. Just remember, just as I have to listen to all of this.... you, too, in turn must listen. Everyone has a different opinion....everyone lives their life differently....that's called freedom. I am not one to judge.... your judgement day & mine will come. What I am here to tell you is.... don't lose yourselves in this BS..... a man "marrying" many wives is shameful.... WHY? because a marriage is between 2 people. I dont have a problem if you call it a POLYunion.... just don't ruine the word marriage. If you want to have it recognized by the government.... that's fine.... just don't mess with the word MARRIAGE. That, my friends, is sacred and should be respected. That's my point.... and its MY FREEDOM of speech that gives me every right to have such an opinion. SO there.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Greg

      I just couldn't read anything after the second ellipses. Learn how to use punctuation correctly, please.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Lela

      It's the internet..... not a University essay. Get with the program.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • 7od

      no words are sacred. grow up.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • aahawks

      You ruined the word marriage a long time ago.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Lela

      The MEANING of the word..... Dingus!

      July 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Bruce

      Lela, I'm willing to bet $10 that you are divorced at least once and are now on your second or maybe even third "marriage."

      L0L

      July 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Lela

      Nope.....HAPPILY MARRIED TO ONE PERSON!!!! Jealous?

      July 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • aahawks

      The meaning of the word has changed also or I bet you would not be defending it unless you like to be thought of as nothing more than a piece of property. You really need to research more and spend less time believing what the Christian right tells you.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Lela

      Bet you are!

      July 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Bruce

      Not jealous, just surprised. (I'm happily married to one person as well, for 14 years now.)

      You don't seem to have the same problem calling previously-divorced people as "married" in the same way you have these others. I wonder why that is? Or are you honest, like Jesus was in Matthew 5:32, and label those relationships with the name that he used? (If you don't want to look it up, he called it "adultery.")

      July 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Lela

      Nobody TELLS me to believe what I believe. I believe it because I have read it....and because I have faith in it. Somethine a whole lot of people are lacking these days – FAITH. Without you.... you've got chaos.....

      July 12, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Lela

      Bruce.... I dont believe in divorce for that very reason also. Who told you I didnt have a problem with that?

      July 12, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Bruce

      You told me that, Lela, by your lack of railing against divorce and remarriage in this specific context when you singled out polygamy and same-s. e. x.* marriage as examples of "don't call this marriage!" and didn't mention the far-more-common divorce and remarriage that happens all the time and perfectly legally for many years now.

      That, and people like you tend to be total hypocr. ites* when it comes to these things. Like I said, I'm surprised.

      *Sorry, you have to be all careful or they auto-"moderate" you to silence.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Lela

      You're right Bruce. Why do you think I'm quite about divorce? Its the same reason that THIS will be socially acceptable in a few years from now. Because my elders did not fight hard enough to keep the true meaning of marriage alive. Its a lost battle. Just going downhill..... I can't stop it..... I can't fight it..... I can only anonymously write on a message board to make people aware that there are still PURE people like me that have strong beliefs about marriage and its true meaning....

      July 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Please just don't ruine the word ruin.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  10. rATL

    Well since it doesn't have anything to do with you I don't see what your big problem is. If you only want one husband or wife then don't take more than one. Same with same s e x marriage. If it offends you don't partake.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  11. Shannon

    I wonder if this went through, there could be polygamist gay marriages. Just a thought and a funny visual. Doubt any religion would recognize it.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Peter

      LMAO – ok that was funny and I am sure the real bible thumper heads will be spinning with that analogy. LOL!

      July 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • ringo

      We already have them – they're called "softball teams"

      July 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  12. Oompa

    It's funny how people are claiming the Gov shouldn't get involved in marriages until it's time for them to divorce, then they can't run in front of a judge fast enough to work out their financial mess.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  13. beth

    I don't agree with polygamy but these folks aren't technically guilty of bigamy. They are, as I understand it, not legally married, except for the original two. Leave them alone to do what they want. It would be very different if any of these "spiritual wives" was underage, of course. As it is, these are five adults choosing to live together.

    I don't get it but I don't have to. Consensual relations don't require my input.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  14. Meg

    I agree that people should be able to 'live their lives' as they wish. No law should forbid individual choice. Gays should be able to be gay, polygamists should be able to have a pleural family...but marriage is another thing. It is not my place to judge, but the morality of this country is heading south. Marriage is between one man and one woman. Live as you wish but do not expect the country to change all rules because of you.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Leonard

      I feel that's not right that's why this World is going to hell now Repent and Belive the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

      July 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Meg

      Marriage is the RELIGIOUS joining of man and woman...a civil union is a GOVERNMENT joining. I suggest you take another look at the gospel of Jesus Christ. 🙂

      July 12, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Peter

      "Marriage is between one man and one woman."

      To late there are already states that have allowed gay marriage and the courts are ruling it's unconsti-tutional to not allow gays to marry. Prop 8 just lost again in appeal court it was still found unconsti-tutional.

      You do realize that marriage exist before the bible right, it has nothing to do with just Christianity, so you don't have a monopoly on that term.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  15. dxp2718

    I don't think there's a problem with polygamy as long as all spouses are of legal age and agree to the unions. If someone is already married and he wants to marry another person, existing spouses must also agree to the deal (and the new spouse needs to know exactly what he or she is getting into). Making polygamy legal will in fact cut down on taxpayer expenses because what happens now is that the non-legal wives end up being eligible to collect taxpayer-funded benefits (welfare, etc.) because they are technically single/unemployed mothers. If their marriage is recognized then their husband will be responsible for supporting them.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • ringo

      Believe it or not, that's the original biblical teaching. A man could only take another wife with the first wife's permission, and had to support both (and their children) equally.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Lela

      which BIBLE are you reading? I am sick of people misquoting the #1 misquoted book in the world.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • ringo

      I'm reading what you would call the "old testament", along with its extensive commentary.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  16. Amber

    I love how Kody states "We only wish to live our private lives according to our beliefs." Then maybe you should have thought twice before deciding to make your story public on a national television show.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  17. Gaurav

    When the nation is sinking with job losses, I don't know how this is such a important issue for the state of Utah. Secondly, if they are brilliant, they all can stay in a same house with one lady legally married to him and three other as her friends. Why do you need a law for yourself. Just marry all of them and then Divorce three of them. And if he is worried about distribution of his wealth just write a will.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  18. auntiecairo

    I think living with as many women as you want is legal – but marriage affords rights– many of these multiple wife households ask for food stamps and federal assistance - and how many tax deductions do you otake? While I agree whatever an adult does is OK - this does affect other people – including children they have - there's something wrong with women who have such low self esteem they are ok with "sharing" their bed with other women. The Mormons try to pretend like there aren't alot of wingnuts in their faith – but there are - like the guy in Texas marrying 12 year old girls and taking their virginity at an alter. And frankly, if these folks didn't want to get the law involved – why do a reality show? It's like propping up pregnant teenagers - people want to get famous for the wrong reasons -

    July 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Bubba

      Let's be accurate here. It isn't the wingnuts inside the "Mormons" (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) that are in polygamous relationships; it is the wingnuts outside (Fundamentalist LDS and other offshoots) of the "Mormons"

      July 12, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  19. kayray

    I have no problem with polygamy in and of itself BUT this is not healthy plural marriage. Everything is about him (he seems childish and selfish) and several of the wives seem unhappy and jealous of each other. I think it would be more equal if it was a group marriage and the women could bring men into the family too. He's definitely getting his cake and eating it too.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • zrock

      You know there's a lot of single families that have jerks for patriarchs as well.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Mr Buggles

      He's getting plenty of poundcake, that's for sure.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  20. Joe Velasquez

    Alright, I don't believe in gay marriage, but I will always stand for civil unions. If a church feels that it is in their teachings not to marry gay, multiple people they have that right to follow their doctrine. However that being said, their is no way that people should not be given the same right as to enter into a relationship recognized through the government.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Nonimus

      hmmm... separate but equal?

      July 12, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Joe Velasquez

      Absolutely equal.

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

      joe: how about civil unions for both straights and gays. the churches can refuse to "bless" these unions. it will have no effect on their legal standings. church things would be entirely ceremonial and hold NO legal standing

      July 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Joe Velasquez

      @Rick, exactly, and I would like to see polygamy welcomed. .

      July 12, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • John

      Considering a couple still needs a certificate from their local courthouse, that's essentially the situation you have now. It's not official until Uncle Sam approves it. I don't see the point in making a couple go through both a courthouse ceremony and church ceremony if they want the church involved, so I'm fine with leaving the situation as it is. And I totally agree that churches should not be forced to bless any type of union they disagree with; that would, in essence, be a violation of the separation of church and state, this time going the other way.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:01 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.