A Small Step Forward for Plural Families

Dec 16, 2013 • Legal

cohabitating aspect of bigamy law struck in Utah

Last Friday presented a brief moment of vindication for men and women in relationships that fall outside the couple. In a 91-page decision, Judge Clark Waddoups in the United States’ Federal District Court, ruled that Utah’s bigamy law, which forms part of their prohibition against polygamy (the practice of having more than one spouse at the same time), was too broad.

Waddoups didn’t rule in favor of bigamy, mind you. The law prohibiting the act of going through a marriage ceremony while already married to another person is a federal one signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and not one we’ll soon cast aside. The issue here is that Utah’s bigamy law states that “a person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person,” and reaches far beyond prohibition of plural marriage.

It’s the “or cohabits” part of the law that is a problem — because it effectively makes any married person guilty of bigamy if they have a long-time stay with someone other than his or her spouse. As such, the court ruled that Utah’s bigamy law is in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants United States residents the right to liberty, free of intrusion from the government.

Cited in the ruling was Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case that put an end to the prohibition of sodomy. The judge quoted the majority opinion in that case by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who stressed that the United States Constitution prohibits “unwarranted government intrusions” into residents private places and “an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression and certain intimate conduct.”

This decision comes after an embittered battle between the Kody Brown, star of the TLC reality television show Sister Wives, and the Utah County Attorney, Jeffrey Buhman. Sister Wives, which began airing in 2010, introduced the nation to the Brown family, which consists of Kody, the patriarch, Meri, his legal wife, and Janelle, Christine and Robyn, Kody’s three other wives. The show documenting the life inside a plural family drew so much attention that the Utah government and police soon got involved, eventually forcing the Brown family to leave Lehi, Utah, for the more permissive city of Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Browns took up the fight despite the possible third-degree felony conviction that could result from following their hearts and sticking to their guns (with sentences that could result in up ti 20 years in prison), in the hopes that so doing will help combat societal prejudices against polygamist families. For their part, because Kody Brown has only married one woman legally and never attempted to defraud any other person or entity in this regard, it is unlikely that he could have been charged under bigamy law were it not for the cohabitation section. This is critical, as Waddoups agreed that the part of the law that prohibits “the fraudulent or otherwise impermissible possession of two purportedly valid marriage licenses for the purpose of entering into more than one purportedly legal marriage” must stand.

“Many people do not approve of plural families,” Kody told CNN. “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.”

In this case, this is a matter of faith. The Browns are members of a fundamentalist branch of the Mormon Church known as the Apostolic United Brethren Church, which continues to practice polygamy, something the Mormon Church gave up when Utah started vying for statehood. But plural families don’t only exist in the realm of believers. Many people around the nation practice polyamory, entering relationships with various individuals, sometimes labeling themselves families.

Though viewed by many in more conventional relationships as an exercise in permissiveness or an inability to commit to a “real” relationships, many people in polyamorous relationships are deeply committed to their partners. One of the most difficult things people in such relationship configurations face is the limitations placed on their desires to build a family and take care of one another in a world that only accepts love as a unit of two.

Header image by Florian Seiffert.