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Judge’s final ruling decriminalizes polygamy in Sister Wives case

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On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups issued his final order striking down key parts of Utah’s ban on polygamous cohabitation as unconstitutional, reports Christian Today. The state’s prohibition against bigamy remains in place. Kody Brown, of the reality show Sister Wives, along with his four partners, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn, members of the Apostolic United Brethren Church, a fundamentalist Mormon sect, filed a lawsuit against the state in 2011 after they were forced to flee Utah due to the threat of being charged with bigamy. They contended that such a prohibition violates their freedom of religion.

Previously practiced by the Mormon Church, polygamous marriage was outlawed in 1890, and is illegal in all 50 states of the US. The Apostolic United Brethren, the group to which Brown and his four wives belong, continued the practice. The five had been under investigation for violating the state statute, and moved to Nevada with their 17 children to escape punishment.

Besides prohibiting bigamy, being married to more than one person simultaneously, Utah also bans people from living together in a polygamous relationship, being legally married to one spouse and living with other partners. Brown was represented in court by Washington, D.C.-based attorney Jonathan Turley. Turley spoke to reporters saying, “Homosexuals and polygamists do have a common interest, the right to be left alone as consenting adults. 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.”

In December, Judge Waddoups ruled in Brown’s favor, determining that Utah’s prohibition on polygamist cohabitation violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. He also stated it interfered with Brown’s right to privacy. The judge pointed to a 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, decriminalizing sodomy in the nation. He separated unmarried sexual conduct from criminal bigamy.

In his December decision he wrote, “Consensual sexual privacy is the touchstone of the rational basis review analysis in this case, as in Lawrence. The court believes that Plaintiffs are correct in their argument that, in prohibiting cohabitation under the statute, ‘it is, of course, the state that has equated private sexual conduct with marriage.’” Since Brown did not claim to be married to all four of the women at the same time, and since the state does not ban cohabitation in premarital or adulterous relationships, Judge Waddoups threw out the cohabitation part of the statute, while continuing to uphold the prohibition on bigamy. Besides striking down the law the Judge also ordered the state to pay Brown’s attorney’s fees.

The ruling read, “It is hereby ordered, adjudged and decreed that Utah Code Ann. § 76-7-101 (2013) is facially unconstitutional in that the phrase ‘or cohabits with another person’ is a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and is without a rational basis under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; to preserve the integrity of the Statute, as enacted by the Utah State Legislature, the Court hereby severs the phrase ‘or cohabits with another person’ from Utah Code § 76-7-101(1).”

Brown and his “Sister Wives" issued a statement which said, “The entire Brown family is gratified and thankful for this final ruling from Judge Waddoups. The decision brings closure for our family and further reaffirms the right of all families to be free from government abuse. While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our religious beliefs.”

For many Christians the idea of any type of unconventional marriage is a slippery slope. Matt Barber, an attorney and Christian columnist wrote, “Make no mistake, unless this euphemistic ‘marriage equality’ bomb is ultimately defused, the cornerstone institutions of natural marriage and the natural family will someday be unrecognizable. A society that rejects the sanctity of marriage and family is a society not long for the world.”

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes plans to file an appeal in this case. It is believed there are approximately 38,000 fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy, most living in Utah. If the state wins the appeal, in the state of Utah it will be illegal to legally marry one person and live with others who are considered to be spiritual spouses. In polygamous Mormon marriages, men usually legally marry one woman. The wives that come after are considered spiritual unions. In the past this law was rarely enforced.