Utah Judge Decriminalizes Polygamy

District court ruling finds key parts of Utah polygamy laws unconstitutional.
Utah Judge Decriminalizes Polygamy

A district court ruling has found key parts of Utah’s polygamy-prohibiting law unconstitutional, setting a new legal precedent in Utah and effectively decriminalizing polygamy. The U.S. District Court judge sided with the polygamous family of Kody Brown, who became famous on TLC’s reality series Sister Wives. Judge Clark Waddoup ruled that the part of the law that made cohabitation illegal was a violation of the First and 14th amendments and wrote that the issue comes down to “religious cohabitation.” Simply living together does not amount to being legally “married,” wrote Waddoup.

The Salt Lake Tribune:

"Judge Clark Waddoups’ 91-page ruling, issued Friday, sets a new legal precedent in Utah, effectively decriminalizing polygamy. It is the latest development in a lawsuit filed by the family of Kody Brown, who became famous while starring in cable TV channel TLC’s reality series "Sister Wives." The show entered a fourth season at the end of the summer.

Waddoups’ ruling attacks the parts of Utah’s law making cohabitation illegal. In the introduction, Waddoups says the phrase "or cohabits with another person" is a violation of both the First and 14th amendments. Waddoups later writes that while there is no "fundamental right" to practice polygamy, the issue really comes down to "religious cohabitation." In the 1800s — when the mainstream LDS Churh still practiced polygamy — "religious cohabitation" in Utah could have actually resulted in "multiple purportedly legal marriages." Today, however, simply living together doesn’t amount to being "married," Waddoups writes.

"The court finds the cohabitation prong of the Statute unconstitutional on numerous grounds and strikes it," Waddoups later writes.

Utah’s bigamy statute technically survived the ruling. However, Waddoups took a narrow interpretation of the words "marry" and "purports to marry," meaning that bigamy remains illegal only in the literal sense — when someone fraudulently acquires multiple marriage licences."

The Brown family's attorney, Jonathan Turley, called the opinion "magnificent" during a phone conversation. In a blog post, he added that it strikes down "the criminalization of polygamy" and will allow "plural families to step out for the first time in their communities and live their lives openly among their neighbors."


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Kody Brown issued a press release to the media:

"The entire Brown family is humbled and grateful for this historical ruling from the court today. Like thousands of other plural families, we have waited many years for this day. While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our beliefs. Just as we respect the personal and religious choices of other families, we hope that in time all of our neighbors and fellow citizens will come to respect our own choices as part of this wonderful country of different faiths and beliefs. There are so many families who have waited for so long for this ruling and, on their behalf, we can only say: thank you, Judge Waddoups, for your courageous decision. We want to particularly thank our lead counsel Professor Jonathan Turley who represented us through the criminal investigation and then led the fight against this law. We also want to thank the team of lawyers and students from George Washington, including our local counsel Adam Alba. We are so honored and blessed to have been able to serve as the vehicle for this milestone ruling. Professor Turley has pledged to defend this decision on appeal and we are equally committed to fight to preserve this great victory."

About Diane Sweet

Diane Sweet's picture
Senior Editor, Lives in a gerrymandered district in Michigan.

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