Brown, who gained international attention and fame while starring in the TLC hit reality series Sister Wives, filed a lawsuit in July 2011 under the belief that polygamist practices bring heavenly exultation in the afterlife. The family faced prosecution in Utah, and had fled for Las Vegas, where Nevada’s polygamy laws allowed for cohabitation—a clause that is legal in the majority of states in the country, and was attacked in the Brown family case. Judge Clark Waddoup’s 91-page ruling, which was issued on December 13th, 2013, essentially decriminalizes the cohabitation.
The Salt Lake Tribune reports the ruling as follows:
“Waddoups’ ruling attacks the parts of Utah’s law making cohabitation illegal. In the introduction, Waddoups says the phrase “or cohabits with another person” is a violation of both the First and 14th amendments. Waddoups later writes that while there is no “fundamental right” to practice polygamy, the issue really comes down to “religious cohabitation.” In the 1800s — when the mainstream LDS Churh still practiced polygamy — “religious cohabitation” in Utah could have actually resulted in “multiple purportedly legal marriages.” Today, however, simply living together doesn’t amount to being “married,” Waddoups writes.
Though this ruling shakes the foundation of previous cohabitation laws in Utah, the bigamy statute still remains, technically. Now the state known for Jello salad, Joseph Smith, and Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints holds polygamy laws similar to every other state in the country, meaning that it is still illegal to be married to more than one person at the same time, however this ruling is based on Judge Waddoup’s narrow interpretation of ‘marry’ and ‘purports to marry’. Now, as in many other states, a man can be married to one woman legally, but can remain “spiritually married” to as many wives as he wishes.
“A landmark ruling from a federal judge in Utah striking down key parts of the state’s polygamy laws handed a legal victory to polygamist families across the state – but the battle might not be over. U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups said in the decision handed down Friday that a provision in Utah’s bigamy law forbidding cohabitation with another person violated the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedom of religion.”
The Brown family was reportedly unavailable for comment, however they did release this statement of gratitude: “While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our beliefs,” Brown wrote. “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.”
Waddoups’ ruling was a shot heard around the world, according to NPR’s story “Judge Softens Utah’s Anti-Polygamy Law To Mixed Reactions” . And as more and more practitioners of polygamy step forward to comment on the ruling, one can’t help but wonder if 2013 is simply the year of marriage equality. With as many as nine states legalizing gay marriage in 2013 (and Colorado legalizing same-sex civil unions), the debate about the parallels between religious cohabitation/plural marriage, and that of same-sex marriage.
NPR reports: “Bill Duncan, director of the Marriage Law Foundation and a conservative legal scholar who opposes legalizing polygamy, says the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage played a role in the decision. One of the precedents cited in Waddoups’ ruling was the 2003 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which legalized same-sex sexual activity across the U.S. I doubt that the court, for instance, when it ruled that Texas could not make it criminal to engage in private consensual sexual relationships, really had in mind the issue of polygamy,” he says. “But, of course, if they write the opinion broadly enough, it will apply to that.”
As stated above, the response to the ruling has been mixed across many communities and subcultures; while many plural families are celebrating, the ruling has created a ripple-effect of confusion and upset among many non-believers. Many argue that while same-sex marriage affects only those involved in marital union, polygamous unions affect entire families. Another criticism of the law is that it is inherently misogynistic, that polygamy favors a model that is oppressive to women (to which I believe there is a great deal of truth—for example, why are there no conversations about polyandry? Why is yet another conversation centering around rights for men, the most privileged subset of the population on the planet?)
Whatever you believe, the ruling is creating a great deal of disorientation. Utah is not a state known for shaking things up, politically, and many folks are shaken by the recent addendum. For more information on the ruling and how it plays out for different sects and subsects of polygamists, ABC Local spells out the details.