SALT LAKE CITY -- For the first time since Utah abandoned the practice of polygamy as a condition of statehood, multiple marriages cannot be prosecuted.
A ruling by a federal judge that essentially decriminalized plural marriage struck down a portion of Utah law that dealt with unlawful cohabitation -- or people who "purported" to be married. The judge kept the bigamy statute intact, by forbidding people from seeking multiple marriage licenses.
"What the opinion means for polygamous families is really something quite transformative. For the first time, polygamy is legal in Utah. It is no longer a crime," said Jonathan Turley, an attorney for reality TV polygamist Kody Brown and his wives, who sued the state of Utah challenging the state's anti-polygamy laws.
In an interview with FOX News on Monday, Turley said Utah was not required to recognize Brown's marriages, but they could not prosecute them. The Browns sued after falling under investigation by Utah County authorities shortly after appearing on their TV show, "Sister Wives."
Utah has had a longstanding policy of not prosecuting polygamy alone, but in concert with other crimes like abuse, welfare fraud and underage marriages. There were no allegations of abuse involving the Brown family, Turley said, they were all consenting adults.
Utah Solicitor General Bridget Romano told FOX 13 on Monday that the judge's ruling meant the state could not pursue a bigamy case alone against a polygamist.
"As it stands, the state is recognizing that this is the decision reached by a federal judge," she said. "The state would be loathe to immediately prosecute cohabitation alone."
Lawyers in the Utah Attorney General's Office are expected to meet Tuesday to decide whether to appeal the judge's ruling. The state has 30 days from the time U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups issues an order. Romano said the decision would likely be made by whomever is appointed to be the new Utah Attorney General.
The ruling was criticized by anti-polygamy activists and social conservative groups across the nation on Monday. It was also criticized by Governor Gary Herbert, who said it "certainly has ramifications for Utah."
The ruling applies to Utah alone, but could have wider implications if it is appealed to higher level courts, like the U.S. Supreme Court.
When the Fundamentalist LDS Church moved from Utah to Texas, then-attorney general Mark Shurtleff testified before the Texas State Legislature in favor of a bill that enhanced bigamy penalties. That law was used to punish a number of FLDS men in the aftermath of the 2008 raid on the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch.
"Texas adopted it, and I think it's kind of poetic that it kind of cleans up in Utah," said Willie Jessop, an ex-member of the FLDS Church and one-time bodyguard to imprisoned polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.
In an interview with FOX 13, Jessop noted that hundreds of children were seized in the YFZ raid and families were separated. He said he does not condone the underage marriages and child sex abuse that Jeffs was convicted of, but said people should not be prosecuted for living polygamy itself.
"If these kind of laws give people the opportunity to live how, where and what they may inside the moral boundaries that does not include underage marriage and the abuse of children, then there ought to be the religious freedom to do that," Jessop said.