Federal Appeals Court Restores Utah's Ban on Polygamy in Sister Wives Ruling

Illustration for article titled Federal Appeals Court Restores Utah's Ban on Polygamy in Sister Wives Ruling

A federal appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit from the stars of TLC’s Sister Wives over Utah’s ban on polygamous marriages, and with it a 2013 ruling that removed the threat of arrest for polygamous families.


Kody Brown and his wives Meri, Christine, Janelle and Robyn filed a lawsuit in 2011 on behalf of their family and other fundamentalist Mormons (the Mormon church banned polygamy in 1890), arguing, according to the New York Times, that the state’s prohibition on cohabitation violated their family’s rights to privacy and religious freedom. The lawsuit was filed after the state launched a bigamy investigation into the family in 2010 following the premiere of Sister Wives; the Browns moved out of state, and the investigation was dropped in 2012.

In 2013, Judge Clark Waddoups of the United States District Court in Utah ruled in their favor, effectively decriminalizing polygamy in Utah but leaving intact the state’s right to ban holding multiple marriage licenses (Brown is only legally married to one of his wives). The state appealed the case, and a three-judge panel has overturned Judge Waddoups’ decision, making it again illegal in Utah for married people to live with additional partners.

The court ruled that the family can’t sue the state if they never faced charges, and prosecutors maintained that they never would unless other crimes were committed; prosecutors asserted that the state would uphold a policy of not going after consenting adult polygamists.

Via CBS News:

The state has a longstanding policy against prosecuting consenting adult polygamists, but prosecutors argued that the ban should stay on the books to help authorities go after polygamists who commit other crimes, such as sexual assault, statutory rape and exploitation of government benefits.

Prosecutors also pointed to imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs, who was convicted of assaulting underage girls he considered wives.

The Browns said other laws exist to target crimes linked to plural marriages and that banning the practice can sow distrust of authority. They say their show is evidence that polygamous unions can be as healthy as monogamous marriages.

Kristyn Decker, a former polygamous wife, was quoted by the Associated Press in support of the ruling, saying that people in polygamous families are faced with pressure to not report problems:

“We have all been told over and over again, ‘We need to protect the principle of plural marriage at any cost,’” said Decker, who argued that the ban lets authorities get a foot in the door.


In a statement following the ruling, the family’s lawyer, Jonathan Turley, questioned the validity of the state’s assertion that “no credible threat of prosecution exists,” citing the family’s relocation to Nevada to avoid a bigamy investigation. He also announced plans to appeal the decision:

The Brown family is obviously disappointed in the ruling but remains committed to this fight for the protections of religion, speech, and privacy in Utah. They respect the panel’s consideration of the appeal and the review process afforded their case.

We respectfully disagree with the decision, which in our view departs from prior rulings on standing and mootness. We have the option of seeking the review of the entire Tenth Circuit or filing directly with the Supreme Court.


Image via screenshot/ABC News.

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.



Can someone explain why polygamy illegal? If it’s based on a violation of the traditional rules of marriage, shouldn’t they just try piggy backing on the legalization of gay marriage? I feel like it gets dicey when it comes to things like spousal benefits and tax deductions, but other than that I don’t really get what the basis of the ban is.

(I’m obviously not talking about cases like Jeffs’)