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. Lela

    I am going to stop posting comments..... I just won't watch the show. 🙂

    July 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  2. Student of World Religions

    Hey, according to TV land... they are just another MODERN FAMILY.

    July 12, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  3. smm

    i don't see what difference it makes, if only one of the marriages was performed in the usual manner by obtaining a license, that marriage is legal. the rest, while they may have been "blessed" by the church these folks belong to or some such thing, are not considered legal by the government, and i can see where, if these folks were filing taxes, that could complicate some things, or applying for some kind of state welfare program, stuff like that, but since there does not appear to be, in this case, multiple licenses applied for, for legal purposes, these folks are basically just shacking together. if the kids are fine, who cares? it's not any different, and perhaps slightly more convenient in certain aspects, than a single man sleeping with a different woman every night of the week, and getting each of them pregnant at some point, and there is plenty of that going on, only the women don't always know there are others and the men don't always take part in raising the kids. so where is the problem here? because these ppl say they are polygamous? that's just a label, to an extent. while the definition of the word may mean having more than one spouse, for the legal system, a spouse is someone that a man or a woman has "married" by obtaining a marriage license. how then can polygamy be against the law, if the other spouses are only recognized as such by the church, but not the state? bigamy is a crime because one has married another before obtaining a legal divorce from the first spouse: again, marriage being dependent, legally, on obtaining the license, to be charged with bigamy requires multiple marriage licenses with no divorce(s). a church can perform any kind of ceremony it wants, but that does not make a marriage legal, and, in fact, is completely unnecessary for legal recognition of marriage. having said all that, if these ppl only want to live their private lives, they shouldn't have a t.v. show, unless they truly want to bring the issue to the forefront and get the laws changed, in which case, this way is as good as any other to get attention for it.

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

      One of the problems is that Utah is a state which still has a common law marriage statute. These couples are not simply cohabiting but are also holding themselves out to be husband and wife very publicly via the television show which puts them in conflict with the marriage laws of the state as well as the criminal code. For what it is worth, keep in mind that they could also be charged with fornication and adultery in Utah though I have the feeling those statutes would be overturned by the courts.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  4. Logan

    Did anyone actually read the article? They're not asking for legal recognition for all of the marriages, they're stating that they feel they have a right to not be prosecuted for entering into consensual relationships with other adults. What consenting adults do with other consenting adults should be private and the idea that these people could be prosecuted is ridiculous. People say they're hurting their kids living this way. Wouldn't it hurt the kids more if Kody Brown had had four wives in succession, produced children with each, and then divorced, left the family home, and married again? But that's perfectly legal. Leave these grown adults how are minding their own business alone.

    July 12, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Gee

      And, iIf they wanted to be alone then get off TV.

      July 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  5. Fly Guy in SJ

    The article says they are not seeking multiple marriage licenses, which implies that only 1 out of the 4 wives actually has a marriage license with him. The other 3, are then not legally married, even if they all consider themselves to be married. If that is so, then the state really has no case for polygamy.

    I do not support poly-anything myself, but if they are all consenting adults, then really, it's none of the state's business.

    July 12, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • o.k.

      You don't support poly-anything? So your against polygons? Poly grip? Polly Shore? (Sorry–couldn't resist)

      July 12, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Pollyanna. I am against Polyanna. Wasn't she Roseann Roseannadanna's optomistic aunt ?

      July 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  6. TheyNotHim

    The issue is not whether this guy is allowed to engage in a plural lifestyle, the question is whether the State of Utah should be able to make such arrangements (aka "Bigamy"), illegal. Men and women have the right to live together in any arrangement they see fit, save for multiple marriage licenses and romantic liason with a minor, but the plural wife dynamic is not on its face illegal, nor should it be.

    I mean, if god wants me to bang like four chicks at once, IM ON IT!

    July 12, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  7. Faith

    No children are being married, no children are being abused (all children seem to be thriving), no multiple marriage licenses are being requested, WHY are they being investigated at all? Laws are not being broken. I wouldn't want to share my husband with other wives, but another woman might not care and that's her right.

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

      That's the point, in Utah, this arrangement IS illegal. That's what they are fighting...

      July 12, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Lola

      They're being investigated because they chose to step into the public spot light and show television viewers their life. I've watched the show, and I commend the family for sticking together and holding their head high. There is nothing wrong with what they're doing. They are all consenting adults that choose to reside together and raise their children, who all just happen to have the same father. These kids are being raised in a strong loving environment; the beliefs of the parents are not being pushed on the children. In fact, the parents have had discussions with their children about their future and if the children are going to have a single marriage household or a plural.

      The state of Utah needs to leave these people alone and work harder on fixing the other problems in their state. If the state of Utah is going to get technical, Mr. Brown would also be considered an adulterer, since he’s married and having relations with someone other than his legal wife; however, the relations that are being had are all by consenting adults.

      Be Proud Brown family! Stand together and stay strong.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  8. Judge Dredd

    That girl in the middle needs to shave

    I am the law

    July 12, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  9. Judge Dredd

    This is how inbreeding will start

    I am the law

    July 12, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  10. Lisa

    as long as everyone is an adult, the law should keep their nose out of it. I personally don't want to be in this type of relationship, but I don't want the law interefering and telling adults who can and cannot get married. Now if its children marrying adults that's a different story.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  11. corey

    why does the govenment care where this guy puts his penis. if the woman want it and they are treating there kids good whats the big deal. If the arguement is a tax thing then ok you have a point. govenment plus private lives equals bad idea

    July 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm |

      Because its brainwashing from birth to support male dominance. you never see one women with a bunch of husbands do you? also its like deer season you can get more than one tag to kill a buck but only one for females, why? its because one male can impregnate 3 females, which will blossom their numbers. it is just as degrading to women as the costumes Muslim women are tricked into wanting to wear

      July 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  12. Liz

    Oh, you wanna be left alone but parade yourselves all over TV for everyone to witness???? Puhleeeze! None of this would be happening if it weren't for your show.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  13. truthtalker

    marriage = one man and one woman.
    And the reason why that has been made law is because fundamentally, that is the best way to live, and therefor the best way to create the foundation needed for healthy children which equals the next generation of citizens.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • JesusCrust

      And single parents NEVER raise productive members of society, right?

      July 12, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • D

      Hate to break it to you...but the 50+% divorce rate says that fundamentally you are wrong. Sorry.

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

      You do realize that around 26% of children in the US are raised by single parents that is around 21.8 million children.

      Plus in gay households, studies comparing groups of children raised by ho-mos-exual and by heteros-exual parents find no developmental differences between the two groups of children in four critical areas: their intelligence, psychological adjustment, social adjustment, and popularity with friends. It is also important to realize that a parent's s-exual orientation does not indicate their children's.

      So your argument about children holds no merit.

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

      marriage = a loving & legally binding contract between two consenting adults, same s*x couples INCLUDED...

      hate to break it to you Truth, but that's the reality of the situation and you should settle in and get used to it...

      July 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  14. Dave Jeff

    I like how the wives are lined up from heaviest to thinnest in the picture. Is that in the LDS handbook? Regardless of their marital-relationship sense, their spatial-relationship sense is wonderful. Kudos.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • JesusCrust

      Like Russian nesting dolls, how cute!

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

      can ya guess which one is his favorite? Very obvious with the 10 day honeymoon he took with Robyn....the other gals only got 3 day camping trips for their honeymoon.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  15. Frank

    I am not sure where this trial will eventually lead. However, I am certain of one thing. If this case goes to a trial in Utah they can forget about winning it. They are wasting their time and money. With Utah's own history of polygamy and the strong support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints they don't have a chance to succeed. Speaking as somebody that lived in Utah for a long time. Of course, this is more than an ideological case. We are talking about federal monies being spent on welfare, social security and other social welfare programs that this "family" has taken advantage of. The state and the federal government has every right to go after fraudulently obtained benefits. They will do it to non-plural and non-married people alike. As for me, I don't condone gay marriage or any form of marriage that is not between one man and one woman. That is how God intended it to be.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  16. nofoldems

    Polygamy is illegal, but having an extra-marital affair is perfectly fine, where's the logic in that? If consenting adults want to be in a relationship, why should the government interfere?
    Some may argue there are legal issues, such as tax benefits. Well, if a man gets divorced and has to pay alimony, and later remarries, he is in fact supporting 2 women and can claim this in his taxes. Same difference.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  17. Bruce

    The American Division of Divorce Lawyers Employing their Daughters (ADDLED) came out and said that Kody Brown's form of polygamy sidesteps the American sacred traditions of getting divorced before getting remarried, which should be the only form of polygamy allowed by law in the United States. If too many people catch on to Brown's loopholes, they may cut the divorce proceedings out of the loop and these lawyers will lose a TON of business.

    We can't risk such a catastrophe in this fragile economy! Outlaw this polygamy now!

    Err... I mean that marriage is a sacred bond between one man and one woman and has been since the time of Adam and Eve, therefore we can't let the term "marriage" be applied to these relationships. Yeah, that's what I meant...

    July 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  18. Trigger

    I personally do not care what they do. If you are not applying for multiple marriage licenses (which is illegal), where is the crime? But as for his comment, "We only wish to live our private lives according our beliefs.", that is not the way it appears since he signed on with the producers to expose their "private" life. Can't have it both ways!

    July 12, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  19. Ituri

    The reason polygamy was ended was slightly due to the abuse of young girls brought up and married off to 50 year old uncles, not because polygamy itself is wrong. Without the religiously focused idea that women are subservient, or that they should marry who they're told to or being married off young by bad parents, there is nothing inherently wrong with having a multiple partnership between consenting adults.

    That said, my personal opinion is that any woman who accepts plural wives without the same right of plural husbands is a hypocrite. How many families of multiple men with a wife are there? The inequality of the genders lives on, and while they may feel fine with it, I honestly pity women who think they can't be equal partners with their husbands.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Linda

      You are so right. How many young men are sent out of the community because the birth ratio doesn't support four girls to every boy. The practice is degrading to women until their is equal polyandry.

      July 12, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Faith

      Isn't it possible they just haven't found another man they want?

      July 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Ituri

      Faith, why would you assume they wouldn't want another man if they think another WOMAN is okay?

      Its all social programming. Women are less valuable to religious societies than men, which is why most religions are patriarchal and domineering. The reality biologically though is that we are semi-monogamous, not just monogamous. We can and normally do have several partners through life, and if a man can have multiple legit partners at once, why would women think otherwise for male partners, save that social programming?

      To assume they just "don't want" other male partners also makes rather sweeping generallities about women lacking se xu ality as a part of their personality. Women want it just as much as men, but believe they shouldn't have more because society says so. Then even when polygamy comes up, the idea of polyandry doesn't even get mentioned.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  20. Student of World Religions

    RE: “Utah is the base of the Church 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.”

    They are not the only ones that have a history and still engage in polygamy.

    Muslim men are allowed to marry two, three, or four wives, according to sura 4:3. “If you fear that you will not act justly towards the orphans, marry such woman as seem good to you, two, three, four, but if you fear you will not be equitable, then only one, or what your right hands own; so it is likelier you will not be partial.”

    Western women who marry Muslim men often discover that their husbands have other wives overseas. Such is a common practice of Muslim men living in Western countries with laws regarding polygamy. Western women are usually naïve about Islamic teachings and practices concerning wives, women, and marriage, or they are certain that such teachings would not be followed by the man they come to know and love.

    Some Muslim aulema (scholars) note that this is an admonition to graciousness. Christian scholars would hasten to observe that this system makes the decision the man’s alone as to whether he can take care of multiple wives. The wives do not have a say if a husband adds another woman to his family.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:42 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.