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Utah state lawyers defending anti-polygamy law on appeal say it prevents abuse

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah state attorneys defending the state's anti-polygamy law argue it should stay on the books because it protects women and children from abuse.

The Utah Attorney General is appealing a ruling striking down key provisions of the law in the case of Kody Brown and his four wives, stars of the reality TV show "Sister Wives." The state says in newly filed court documents that monogamous marriage is an important social unit and court rulings dating back to 1878 have upheld laws against polygamy.

"The United States Constitution does not protect the practice of polygamy as a fundamental right," state attorney Parker Douglas wrote.

Brown family attorney Jonathan Turley countered Monday that the state's evidence of widespread abuse in polygamous communities is scant and the Browns show such unions can be healthy.

"As with monogamous families, the state has ample laws to prosecute individuals for abuse or other crimes," Turley said in an email to The Associated Press.

The state is requesting oral argument in the case and Turley is preparing his response. He has said the family is prepared to take the legal fight to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Utah is appealing a 2013 ruling that struck down key provisions of the state's anti-polygamy law.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups decided that a provision of the state law forbidding cohabitation violated the polygamous Brown family's freedom of religion.

But Utah contends that some religious practices can be outlawed, and polygamy should be one of them, according to documents filed Friday before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The state argues the practice can be associated with crimes like sexual assault, statutory rape and exploitation of government benefits. Outlawing it helps investigators gather evidence and strengthens cases against abusers, court documents say.

The Browns sued Utah in 2011, after they fled to Las Vegas when a county prosecutor threatened to charge them following the premiere of the "Sister Wives."

Advocacy groups for polygamy and individual liberties called the ruling in their favor a landmark decision that removed the threat of arrest for Utah's polygamous families.

The decision decriminalized polygamy, but bigamy — holding marriage licenses with multiple partners — is still illegal. If the ruling stands, Utah's law would be like most other states that prohibit people from having multiple marriage licenses. In most polygamous families, the man is legally married to one woman but only "spiritually married" to the others.

The teaching that polygamy brings exaltation in heaven is a legacy of the early Mormon church, but the mainstream Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.

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