One of the most recognized shows on TLC is Sister Wives, the story of a polygamist family that lives in Nevada. The head of the family, Kody Brown, has four wives and seventeen children, and states that they chose to film the show in order to educate the public about polygamist families. However, and rather unsurprisingly, the family has come under fire for their practices and the show has led them to be investigated for criminal charges regarding polygamy.
Kody states that he is doing nothing illegal, as only his first marriage to Meri Brown is a legally recognized marital union, and the other three wives are spiritual unions. However, given the family has been living as a single unit for 16 years and that all four wives have contributed children, there is a possibility that these “spiritual unions” could in fact be considered common-law marriages.
This case was brought before the U.S. District Court and yesterday Judge Clark Waddoups struck down part of Utah’s law against polygamy. While having multiple marriages remains illegal, Judge Waddoups declared that cohabitation was not in itself illegal. The law was created 134 years ago, and according to the judge has not kept up with the evolving rights of religions minorities. Judge Waddoups stated that religious cohabitation (living together as a religious obligation in an intimate relationship resembling marriage) was not a right that the government could take away, as long as the participants did not create fraudulent marriages by claiming to be legally married.
Part of the judges extremely logical reasoning stated that while the law prosecuted persons who practiced religious cohabitation, it left adulterous cohabitation alone. This meant that the state only pursued criminal prosecution when it was a matter of religion, which threatened the First Amendment rights of legal minorities. It did not use the law to prosecute adulterers and other lecherous individuals who cohabit in multiple relationships without their legal partner knowing.
Why is this important?
- It’s a little self explanatory. Previously, no cohabitation was allowed for the purposes of multiple marriages, religious or otherwise. Judge Waddoups has decided that as long as people don’t attempt to have multiple legally recognized marriages, that cohabitation and calling each other husband and wife is a religious right. This means that the close to 40,000 fundamentalist Mormons, along with other religious sects that believe in polygamy, can continue to have multiple wives in a religious sense and cohabit with all of them.
Will this be controversial?
- In a word, yes. Women who have left polygamous marriages state it only leads to abuse of both women and the children, leaving everyone hurt. Others view this as a step in the right direction, saying that it supports one of our most fundamental rights, the freedom of religion. Another point proponents of the decision make is that a more open atmosphere about polygamy will encourage people to report abuse, making the situation more safe for practitioners.