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Federal Judge Strikes Down Anti-Polygamy Laws in Utah

Teens raised in plural-marriage families take part in a pro-polygamy demonstration in Salt Lake City back in 2006.
Teens raised in plural-marriage families take part in a pro-polygamy demonstration in Salt Lake City back in 2006.

(KCPW News) A judge for the Utah Federal Court struck down parts of Utah’s anti-polygamy laws as unconstitutional on Friday.

The ruling is a victory for polygamous families, including plaintiff Kody Brown and his family. Brown and his four wives are featured on the popular TLC reality show “Sister Wives.”

In a ruling released on Friday, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups found that Utah law restricting cohabitation was in violation of the First Amendment, which protects religious freedom. In the decision, the judge reasons that Utah has “no rational basis” to ban religious cohabitation as practiced by polygamist sects. He did, however, uphold the state’s prohibition of legal bigamy, narrowly defined as when one person obtains two marriage licenses.

The case was brought to court by television star Kody Brown and his four wives: Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn Sullivan. Meri Brown is Kody’s legal spouse. The Brown family is one of the more public polygamist families, starring in their own reality show since 2010.

Anne Wilde of Principle Voices, a polygamy advocacy group, cheered the ruling. She says that the decision, should it stand up to the appeal process, could mean more equality for those in plural marriages.

“I got a call not too long ago from somebody who had married a man in plural marriage, but she had been married before and had two children,” Wilde says. “The ex-husband was holding over her head the fact that she couldn’t have legal custody because she was a plural wife. Now, legally that will not hold water anymore. I mean, he can threaten her, but at least they’re on more equal footing legally about getting custody of those children.”

With polygamy effectively legal, Wilde says polygamists won’t have to live in the shadows anymore.

“There’s no way—for right now at least, and hopefully permanently—that they can step in and take away people’s children, or arrest a man for having more than one wife,” she says.

Not just polygamists are in favor of Judge Waddoups’ decision. Karen McCreary of the ACLU in Utah believes the judge ruled correctly on the basis of protecting religious freedoms.

“I think that the court found the statute does not apply to everyone,” she says. “Instead, it criminalizes cohabitation between consenting adults only when it’s done for religious purpose. So, singling people out based on their religious beliefs in this way is wrong and unconstitutional.”

The Utah Attorney General’s Office has not yet decided whether it will appeal the ruling, but because this was only a partial ruling on the plaintiffs’ suit, there will be ample time for the attorney general’s office to determine how to proceed.

The Apostolic United Brethren, a polygamist church in Bluffdale with ties to the Brown family, was reached by phone on Monday, but the call was disconnected after a request for comment.

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