Utah defends polygamy ban in appeal of ‘Sister Wives’ decision

Posted at 2:53 PM, May 30, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-31 10:17:30-04

SALT LAKE CITY — In its appeal of a federal judge’s decision that essentially decriminalized polygamy in Utah, the state argues it should continue to ban the practice to avoid abuses and protect the institution of marriage.

“The State of Utah has through its Legislature determined that barring bigamy serves Utah’s best interests,” Utah Federal Solicitor Parker Douglas wrote in a filing with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals obtained by FOX 13 on Saturday.

The state is appealing a ruling by a federal judge that overturned part of the state’s ban on polygamy in a 2011 lawsuit filed by reality TV polygamist Kody Brown and his wives, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn. The family found themselves under investigation by Lehi police and the Utah County Attorney shortly after their cable TV show began airing.

Polygamist Kody Brown and his four wives (left to right) Robyn, Janelle, Christine and Meri. The family stars in the reality TV show "Sister Wives." (Photo provided by TLC)

Polygamist Kody Brown and his four wives (left to right) Robyn, Janelle, Christine and Meri. The family stars in the reality TV show “Sister Wives.” (Photo provided by TLC)

The Browns argued in their lawsuit that the state’s polygamy ban violated their religious freedom rights and their right to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution. In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups struck down a portion of Utah’s anti-bigamy law, which prohibited cohabitation. It remains illegal for people to seek multiple marriage licenses.

In its appeal, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’ office argues that polygamy is still illegal under an 1879 U.S. Supreme Court decision, and a 1985 ruling by the 10th Circuit Court. The state cited the prosecution of polygamists Tom Green and Rodney Holm, each of whom were convicted of marrying underage girls. In this case, each of Kody Brown’s wives are above the age of consent.

The state also argues that it has an interest in protecting marriage.

“Utah has an interest in regulating marriage because it is an important social unit, and this interest remains as this Court has recently recognized regardless of how other state provisions regulating marriage are evaluated for their constitutional soundness or infirmity,” Douglas wrote, citing Kitchen v. Herbert, the same-sex marriage case that Utah fought and lost.

The decision basically decriminalizing polygamy in Utah came a week before the historic decision that overturned Amendment 3, the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Utah appealed that all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case and made same-sex marriage legal here.

In its appeal of the polygamy ruling, the Utah Attorney General’s Office wrote that plural marriage should be prohibited to avoid other crimes.

“Utah additionally has an interest in prohibiting polygamy in order to avoid marriage fraud as well as to prevent the exploitation of government benefits for people with a marital status,” Douglas wrote. “The Statute also assists the State’s interests in protecting women and children from crimes such as statutory rape, sexual assault, and failure to pay child support.”

The state asks for oral arguments before a three judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court in Denver. The attorneys for the Brown family will get to reply to the appeal before such arguments take place.

Read the appeal in the ‘Sister Wives’ case here: