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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. DeeJay

    I don't hear any discussion about the financial cost to the so-called husband in these relationships. How can he possibly afford all of these children? What the pubic should know is that these mothers can and do apply for welfare and food stamps as single mothers because the law says she is unmarried and therefore eligible for government programs. If the government help were to be cut-off maybe the so-called husband would think twice before having multiple wives and children. We the tax payers are supporting their lifestyles. More wasted money and the government isn't even investigating.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • Zodnick

      Are you stating facts or just blowing smoke?

      July 12, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  2. AD

    Great, now b/c of this ridiculous guy and his reality show gay marriage opponents will think their slippery slope argument is valid. All they have done with their publicity stunt is hurt those who want legitimate rights

    July 12, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • Zodnick

      I see what they want to be just as valid as gay marriage.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Makes sense

      Your fears are well-founded; this argument is already being made on religious radio shows.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  3. Misy

    I don't understand what the difference between polygamy and a man having multiple children with multiple women is? Is the difference that the polygamist is taking care of the children he's fathered? How can we prosecute one but not the other?

    July 12, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • Tina

      So, should his health insurance cover his three non-legal wives? If he dies, should all his wives collect social security as his surviving spouses? I think there are a lot of unanswered questions about the impact of a polygamist family that will not be answered in this lawsuit.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Misy

      His health insurance should only cover the children/wife that he is legally married to. Medicaid would cover the rest of them or I don't know they could get jobs. As far as Social Security pay out upon death...that's a different story – the kids should still be taken care of – it's not their fault they were born into this particular lifestyle.

      I do agree that there are too many issues and questions that lawsuits won't fix. If it's not them then it will be someone else.

      July 13, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  4. DougieT

    If you can't be happy with that one special person in your life then why get married?

    July 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  5. JennyTX

    If some men have 4 wives, that leaves lot of men with no wives.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Makes sense

      Hence, gay marriage.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • DougieT

      The only flaw in your logic "Makes Sense" is that gay men "prefer" other men. They aren't gay because there just weren't enough women to go around.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Makes sense

      They aren't?

      Since when?

      July 12, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • Makes sense

      And, why "prefer" in quotes?
      Don't they really?

      July 12, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • DougieT

      @Makes sense: You may be gay because you couldn't find a female who wanted you but most gay folks can find members of the opposite gender who want them but they just prefer people of their own gender.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  6. Unowhome

    I'm hoping for gay marriage to be legalized also, why? Because I have a hidden agenda! I'm hoping gay marriage is approved so that when gays get divorced the court will be forced to award shared custody to both guys or women. Right now the court simply gives custody to the woman unless she is in jail or on crack! With the courts forced to deal with child custody Between two people that are the same I believe they will go with shared custody more often, then if gays can get true shared custody of kids I'm hoping divorced dads will have chance of it also. U live in same school zone, one week at my house one week at her house, no child support and everything is equally split. A true end to kids being used as blackmail!

    July 12, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Lynn

      Great point! I absolutely agree. I think that having prohibitive marriage laws in our country is SO outdated. I am Christian, and my belief is for one man and one woman to marry. That is my believe, which should not be pushed upon every other American who may hold a different religious or spiritual belief. People should be able to enter into a contract regardless of gender, race, or number...just my opinion. Our country needs to update the laws dramatically. Just sayin....

      July 12, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • Zodnick

      Wow, great point. My child and I were victims of the courts gender bias to females, it hurt us both and rewarded a person who was unfaithful and a terrible mother. That's it, I'm now supporting gay marriage!

      July 12, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  7. Audience Member

    Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!!!!

    July 12, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  8. Reality

    Polygamy in today's modern part of the world is another word for adultery punishable by divorce and significant alimony. Of course in Islam, said polygamy/adultery for males is condoned as being blessed by Allah and his "profit" Mohammed. A Muslim female, however, is not blessed and is stoned for this transgression.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Zodnick

      You say that like it's a bad thing:)

      July 12, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  9. alumette

    They appear nice and friendly and I'm sure they are and no one should care if they want to live together. My only problem is that population explosion. Too many kids.....It's only natural if you are a rabbit, not a human. Please......get sterilized.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  10. 23Eris23

    This is a religious matter. When did the Gov get let in to decide these sorts of things for us? It's no ones business what these people do.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  11. Jax

    Hmmm-I find it interesting that all polygamist men are absolutely against their wives having "multiple husbands".
    The thought of their wives being with other men disgusts them. Not to mention they will use every excuse under the sun, even throw in supposed biblical references to justify why it's not ok for a woman to have many husbands but it's ok for them to have tons of wives.
    I see men turning towards polygamy as a way to justify inter*course with multiple women. Including those as young as 14 years old. Which in that case would be pedophilia.
    I see women that get into polygamist marriages as having such low self worth, that they don't feel they are good enough to be in an exclusive relationship with a man. It's sad really.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  12. Tiger Woods

    See, I was always a tiger and not ever a cheetah. I just forgot to tell Elin that we had converted over to the Mormon religion and that we were now polygamists. My bad.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  13. alumette

    One of these wives, actually, two, need radical abdominoplasty surgery. After six kids each, they are wrecked. Get rid of that flab girls...please. Not attractive.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  14. DougieT

    People would be totally shocked to know that Mickey Mouse is a polygamist as he has another wife besides Minnie. Mickey and Snow White are also a married couple. After all, where do you think that those seven dwarfs came from, outer space?

    July 12, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  15. ken

    polygamy was important when there was a high rate of infant mortality and few men with the means to care for women and their children. The men with the money who could afford more than one wife got them. They also got to have loads of kids who truth be told were nothing more than slaves related to the parents. Abraham anyone. Need more shepherds for the flocks marry another wife and beget more kids. Really naturally speaking, polygamy is the fair and just way to procreate beyond the capacity of one woman to conceive more than one kids every couple of years. Religion should not even be part of the conversation.

    Now in todays day and age when no one needs to have more kids than they can afford and when having children is less dangerous to the child and the woman AND since we no longer require lots of kids to take care of use polygamy is no longer about having children. It would be an excellent way to move up the economic ladder if all members of the "marriage" actually did their part and they shared. Imagine 3 wives where one is the cook, cleaner and caretaker of kids, the other is the go get the groceries and handle all the other chores like paying bills and the husband and third wife both have jobs outside the home that can provide for the other two. Even better imagine a "marriage" where all four have jobs making good money and the house they could afford together. Imagine the spending power of that household. The only hangup would be jealousy and sharing issues. Now imagine that same man has one wife, and several mistresses. Children by several women (newt gingrich anyone). How about we do away with the stupid laws banning multiple marriage the way we did with laws punishing infidelity. after all the only difference between the polygamist and the cheater is the polygamist is being honest and the women all recognize and accept each other. The cheater is more the criminal if you ask me.

    July 12, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  16. Zeeman

    Looking at the picture, I don't understand why the 4 gals would want to marry that homely guy. As for him, only one of the women is more than a 5/10

    July 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Can you say

      Shallow. You should never enter into a relationship based purely on what someone looks like. Your disgusting.

      July 12, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • MistahBurns

      Hahahahaha hilarious and true, im with zeeman on this one

      July 12, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  17. Rick

    Good for you ....

    About time this country start thinking outiside of the box and grow some tolerance of alternate belief systems that stray from churches linked to Europe.

    July 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  18. Unowhome

    I see nothing wrong if consenting adults want to be in this type of relationship. Who exactly is being harmed? The government has more important things to worry about than a man or woman having more than one wife or husband. It's legal to kill an unborn child but u can't have more than one wife! I hope they win the case.

    July 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • alumette

      wake up fundamentalists ! the planet is overloaded with humans. We do not need to procreate any more....these history books were written when humans were freshly discovering themselves and assuming they needed to fill the land with their progeny. With over six billion people on the planet, it is obscene to follow that "rule". We are destroying the planet as we will soon run out of drinking water and food....not to mention, we will slowly burn up. We need ASAP radical abortion laws ( in favor of ), sterilization of all the fools who have more than one kid and euthanasia for those who want to jump ship. In the mean time if a guy and twenty woman want to live together...who cares ? simply get sterilized. No more kids the state cannot afford.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  19. GodlessOpera

    I wouldn't be opposed to polygamous marriage so long as polygamous marriages don't receive special and/or greater tax benefits and rights that monogamous marriages receive. As long as actual equality is maintained, though, it shouldn't be the government's business to dictate who can enter lifelong contracts of family and love with whomever they wish so long as there is informed consent on all parties' behalf.

    It would also be important to preserve religious liberty by protecting churches' rights to refuse such marriages if they so wish. No one should want to force churches to marry groups or couples that violate that church's beliefs.

    July 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  20. JD

    I'd gladly take a few sister wives in. One for the laundry, one for dishes, one for house cleaning, etc. Sounds like a great idea to me.

    July 12, 2011 at 5:50 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.