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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 8 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 45
Federal judge strikes down Utah anti-polygamy law - Victory for 'Sister Wives' family
Section One
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Federal judge strikes down Utah anti-polygamy law - Victory for 'Sister Wives' family

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A federal district judge struck down a key part of Utah's anti-polygamy law on December 16.

Judge Clark Waddoups said that the statute forbidding 'cohabitation' violates the U.S. Constitution's due process clause and the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom.

However, Waddoups said he would retain the ban on bigamy 'in the literal sense - the fraudulent or otherwise impermissible possession of two purportedly valid marriage licenses for the purpose of entering into more than one purportedly legal marriage.'

The suit had been filed by Kody Brown and his four wives - Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn - the stars of the TLC cable show 'Sister Wives.'

In a 91-page decision, Waddoups cited Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case that struck down laws prohibiting sodomy.

Quoting the majority opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the judge said the Constitution protects people from 'unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places' and recognizes 'an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression and certain intimate conduct.'

'To state the obvious,' Waddoups continued, 'the intervening years [since 1976, when the law at issue was passed] have witnessed a significant strengthening of numerous provisions of the Bill of Rights.'

They include, he wrote, enhancements of the right to privacy and a shift in the Supreme Court's posture 'that is less inclined to allow majoritarian coercion of unpopular or disliked minority groups,' especially when 'religious prejudice,' racism or 'some other constitutionally suspect motivation can be discovered behind such legislation.'

The Browns, who have 17 children, are members of a polygamist offshoot of the Mormon Church, known as the Apostolic United Brethren Church.

Polygamy, or 'plural marriage,' was long a tenet of the Mormon church. Brigham Young, for example, had 51 wives.

When Utah applied for statehood at the end of the 19th century, however, Mormon leaders came under pressure to abandon the practice, and church president Wilford Woodruff banned it in 1890. The Utah legislature passed its first anti-polygamy statute soon after.

While the vast majority of Mormons accepted Woodruff's instructions and no longer practice polygamy, several small groups of so-called 'Mormon fundamentalists' split off in order to continue plural marriage.

In a statement released Friday, Brown said he and his family have waited years for what he called a 'historical ruling.'

'While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our beliefs,' he said. '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.'

'I cannot express my gratitude enough! What a wonderful day!' Robyn Sullivan Brown, one of Kody Brown's wives, posted Friday on Twitter.

'I feel blessed beyond belief tonight. No words can express how I love being free!' tweeted Christine Brown, another of Kody Brown's wives.

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who represented the Browns, called the ruling a victory for privacy as well as polygamy.

'What it means is these families can now walk out in public and be a plural family and not be afraid of being put under investigation or threatened with the loss of their children,' Turley said.

'Homosexuals and polygamists do have a common interest: the right to be left alone as consenting adults,' Turley added, in reference to the judge's citation of the Lawrence case. 'There is no spectrum of private consensual relations - there is just a right of privacy that protects all people so long as they do not harm others.'

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