“Sister Wives” Win Big Case
The Learning Channel, or TLC, has made a name for itself in recent years for creating shows that showcase a variety of family arrangements. From the infamous “Jon & Kate plus Eight” to “Little People, Big World,” TLC stars are probably used to seeing themselves in headlines. But one of TLC’s shows, “Sister Wives,” is making headlines this week for a different reason–they were on the winning side of a lawsuit against Utah’s polygamy laws that was ruled on Friday.
“Sister Wives” stars consists of Kody Brown, his four wives, and their 17 children. They are Fundamentalist Mormons and members of a church called Apostolic United Brethren, a specific sect within the greater Latter Day Saints church. Most Mormons don’t practice polygamy now, but some do, and AUB is one of them. According to Principle Voices, a polygamy lobby and advocacy group, there are about 38,000 Mormons in the United States who practice, or at least believe in the practice of, polygamy.
“Sister Wives” began airing in 2010 and the fourth season started last summer. Brown is legally speaking only married to his first wife–Meri. The other three, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn are all married to Brown in a spiritual and religious, but not legal, sense. Since the show began, a bigamy investigation was opened by the state. The Browns have since fled from their home in Utah, to Las Vegas, NV. They were scared of persecution due to their polygamist family arrangement.
Until last Friday, Utah had some of the strictest anti-bigamy and anti-polygamy laws in the country. It was illegal to even claim you were married to multiple people, or to live with multiple partners. Most other states have made it so that it is illegal to obtain multiple marriage licenses, or try to obtain a marriage license to someone who is already married.
Under the former Utah definition, the living arrangement of the Browns would have been illegal. In Utah, it would have been classified as up to a third-degree felony, warranting a fine of up to $5000 or up to 5 years in prison. State attorneys have used the law to prosecute polygamous families successfully in the past.
The Browns brought the lawsuit against Utah about two years ago, claiming that their constitutional right to privacy was being violated by the Utah law, as well as their right of religious freedom. US District Court Judge Clark Waddoups agreed with the Browns in a 91-page ruling he released on Friday. The ruling struck down only the cohabitation portion of the Utah polygamy law, and rendered it similar to polygamy laws in most other states. Now, it is only illegal to attempt to legally marry someone, or attempt to seek a marriage license if you are already married. In his decision, Judge Waddoups pointed out that the law is “too broad because it bars consenting adults from living together and criminalizes their intimate sexual relationships”.
This is seen as a huge win for both fundamentalist Mormons, as well as privacy-rights advocates. Given the national debate about marriage rights, whether this will move in a wave of changes could be interesting. But my prediction is that it will not, and that Judge Waddoups’ ruling was just a move to catch up an antiquated law in a conservative state to the rest of the United States.
Anneliese Mahoney (@AMahoney8672) is Lead Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at amahoney@LawStreetMedia.com.
Featured image courtesy of [Kyle Pearce via Flickr]