The family at the center of the reality show Sister Wives is celebrating after a federal judge ruled Friday that key parts of Utah’s anti-polygamy laws are unconstitutional, and that polygamous families could no longer be arrested on felony charges.
The lawsuit was filed in 2011 by Kody Brown and his four wives on behalf of their family and other fundamentalist Mormons who believe that polygamy brings exaltation in Heaven, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. Brown and his family have starred on TLC’s Sister Wives for four seasons. The judge ruled that parts of laws against polygamy violate the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. The Mormon Church formally banned polygamy more than a century ago, but about 38,000 Mormons who still practice or believe in polygamy may now find it easier to marry multiple wives without facing arrest or felony prosecution.
Under the new ruling, it is still illegal to obtain multiple marriage licenses, but families can no longer be prosecuted for cohabitation with multiple women or “purporting” to be married, CNN reports. Utah’s polygamy laws were previously some of the strongest in the nation.
“While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our beliefs,” Kody Brown said in a statement Friday. “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.”
Some women who left polygamous marriages were disappointed in the ruling, and argued that polygamy encourages abuse against women and children. Kristyn Decker, who spent 50 in a polygamous sect, said that comparisons between polygamy and gay marriage were off-base because of the power structure of polygamous relationships. “It’s not about choice,” she said. “It’s about coercion.”
But supporters of the ruling argued that more social inclusion would make it easier for polygamous families to report abuse. Utah County Attorney Juff Buhman said last year he wouldn’t prosecute consenting polygamous adults unless there were allegations of violence, abuse or fraud.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert said he had not yet had time to review the decision, but that legal decisions about social issues make him a bit uneasy. “I’d much rather see decisions on social issues come from our Legislature representing the will of the people,” he said.