The ‘Sister Wives’ Fight to Legalize Polygamy

Sister Wives  family take polygamy appeal to U.S. Supreme Court.

One of the arguments given forth for not recognizing gay marriages in the United States was it would open the floodgates for all manner of unions, such as bigamy, polygamy, incest and bestiality. So when a U.S. district court decision in 2013 overturned the ban on polygamy in Utah, the people who had voiced concerns of permitting gay marriage felt they had been right all along and that society was rapidly deteriorating.

However, Judge Clark Waddoups only struck down part of the law banning polygamy in Utah, holding that no American citizen has the basic right in the constitution to multiple marriages. The law in Utah was special in that it did not just prohibit legally marrying more than one woman. The Utah law also prohibited the cohabitation of a house by unmarried people who had multiple sexual partners.

Kody Brown and his four “wives” (he is only legally married to one) challenged the law immediately when their reality show, Sister Wives, aired and were facing investigation by the police for polygamy related offenses. This led to what was known as the decriminalization of polygamy. However, in April of 2016, an Appellate court quashed their lawsuit, stating they had not been charged under the law and thus could not commence a lawsuit against the government bodies. This ruling subsequently overturned the previous ruling in 2013 that had made cohabitation without marriage legal.

After the ruling made by the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals, Brown and his ‘Sister Wives’ have lodged an application for a hearing of their case to the highest court in the land: the Supreme Court. Their lawyer, Jonathan Turley commented in a press statement to the public: “This has been an extended and difficult struggle for the Brown family but they have never wavered in their commitment to defending the important principles of religious freedom in this case. Utah is a state that was founded by courageous citizens seeking these very protections from government abuse and religious inequality. This lawsuit is true to the original dream of those seeking freedom in Utah."

Given the thrust of the argument that Brown’s legal team will be advancing to the powers that be in the Supreme Court, experienced legal minds opine that it will be a difficult story to sell to the judges. This is because there are well known and deeply entrenched constitutional and statutory rights for women and children. For example, bigamy attracts a fine or imprisonment or both.

Brown and his four wives have managed to exploit the loopholes inherent in the law by coming up with an ingenuous method where he is married to one woman legally but is still married to the rest, albeit spiritually. Other tactics include marrying the first wife thus giving her your last name and divorcing her while still living with her under the same roof. This process is then repeated until all parties are satisfied and close the door to any new applications.

While Brown and his legal team have decided to use religious freedom as their strategy, Matthew Kacsmaryk, deputy general counsel at First Liberty Group noted that constitutional rights are often weighed or balanced against each other so as to achieve a golden mean. There are many hurdles that lie ahead for Kody Brown and his ‘Sister Wives.’ For instance, the Supreme Court is yet to agree to hear any constitutional arguments from Brown’s legal team. The Supreme Court has also upheld many U.S. anti-polygamy laws in the past, which makes the chances for a favorable response for the Brown case dim. 

The Brown family are members of Apostolic United Brethren, a Mormon sect that allows plural marriages. However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not supported plural marriages since 1890. In a 1998 speech, then President Gordon B. Hinckley, declared “This Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church…. If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church.”

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