[JURIST] A polygamous family filed a lawsuit [complaint text, PDF] on Wednesday in the US District Court for the District of Utah [official website] seeking to overturn the state’s prohibition on bigamy [Utah Code 76-7-101] as a violation of their civil rights. While the complaint acknowledges that the US Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of polygamy in Reynolds v. US [text], it suggests that criminal sanctions for committing any private, intimate behavior between consenting adults was struck down in Lawrence v. Texas [text], when the court ruled that states could not criminalize sodomy. The parties also state they do not seek official federal or state recognition of their marriage, but an end to prosecutions for having a “plural family.”
The criminal bigamy law criminalizes not just polygamous marriages but also an array of plural intimate relationships and associations of consenting adults. By criminalizing religious-based plural families and intimate relationships under the criminal bigamy law, Utah officials prosecute private conduct between consenting adults without requiring law enforcement officials to show harm to society or those involved. The disparate treatment of polygamists denies them the basic liberties and equal protection under the law guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.
The plaintiffs in the case, Kody Brown and his three wives, are the stars of the reality show Sister Wives [website]. An investigation [Salt Lake Tribune report] against him for bigamy has been ongoing since September 2010. In a statement [press release], Brown said, “We only wish to live our private lives according to our beliefs. While we understand that this may be a long struggle in court, it has already been a long struggle for my family and other plural families to end the stereotypes and unfair treatment given consensual polygamy.” A federal judge in Utah rejected a similar challenge [JURIST report] in 2005.
Polygamy, the practice of having more than one wife, is currently legal and recognized in much of Africa and the Middle East, while it is widely illegal in North and South America, Europe and China. Polygamy—called bigamy when illegal—is criminalized in every state in the US. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women [official website] in 2008 urged Saudi Arabia [JURIST news archive] to outlaw polygamy [JURIST report], which it said is by its very nature counter to gender equality. The year before Indonesia upheld marriage laws limiting polygamy [JURIST report], despite teachings in the predominantly Islamic country’s largest religion allowing men to take up to four wives. However, in 2006, a Canadian study urged the Canadian federal government to legalize polygamy [JURIST report] to help protect women and children in those relationships.