In a 91 page decision, Federal District Court Judge Clark Waddoups ruled that portions of Utah’s laws related to polygamy and bigamy were unconstitutional.
The case pitted TLC reality tv show “Sister Wives” star Kody Brown, along with his legal wife Meri, and three other women whom Kody Brown claims as his other wives, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn, against the Utah County Attorney, Jeffrey Buhman.
Indeed, it was TLC’s series “Sisterwives” that drew the attention of not only Buhman, but also Utah Governor Gary Herbert and then Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to the case. As court documents recounted that state officials would publicly shun the Browns as “committing crimes every night on television.” On September 27, 2010, Lehi police opened an investigation into the Brown family to determine if charges of bigamy were warranted. The crime of bigamy in Utah is a third-degree felony and could have led to up to 20 years of prison for Brown’s four wives. The investigation would eventually be dropped in June, 2012, but not before the Browns left the state, choosing to relocate to Las Vegas.
In July 2011, the Browns brought a complaint to federal courts, ultimately resulting in Friday’s court decision.
In the decision, the court found that Utah’s bigamy law, which was the states primary polygamy law, was too broad when it included cohabitation. The law currently reads that ” A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.”
By including cohabitation in its bigamy law, the court concluded, the state cast too wide a net—as a married person could, under Utah law, be guilty if bigamy if they lived with another individual for an extended period of time, even if the individual was still in a monogamous relationship with another individual. The law left no room for long-term stays or an estranged husband sleeping on a friend’s couch.
The court also noted that recently other courts have agreed that it is not the state’s place to criminalize relationships or the activities within those relations. Consenting adults, the court argues, are allowed to engage in whatever relationships they so choose and should not become criminals simply for engaging in those relationships. By preventing the Browns, or any other polygamous relationship, from taking place, the state is violating the Fourteenth Amendment right to liberty, free of intrusion from the government according to the court.
Kody Brown, who is only legally married to Meri, made no attempts to legally marry his other wives and made no attempts to defraud other individuals or the state in regards to this fact.
To this end, the court reemphasized the fact that the state has an important role in regulating marriage, but only in the legal sense. The state, the court says, can not justify setting down legal restrictions to those who stray away from a traditional structure so long as other harm is not being done. Cases of incest, rape, intercourse with a minor, and domestic or child abuse are outside of this general statement, and laws independent of Utah’s bigamy law address such crimes.
Jonathan Turley, Lead Council for the Browns, called the decision “a major constitutional ruling in [the] protection of individual rights,” on his website Friday. “Utah has achieved something equally important today: true equality of its citizens regardless of their personal faiths or practices. It is a moment in which all Utahans [sic] should take pride and celebrate not in the name of polygamy but of privacy. So congratulations to the Browns and to the people of Utah on a truly momentous day.”
In a statement, Kody Brown noted that he was pleased with the outcome and heralded the decision as “historic.”
“While we know that many people do not approve of plural families,” Brown said, “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.”