Federal Judge Effectively Decriminalizes Polygamy in Utah

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Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 15 2013 4:34 PM

Federal Judge Effectively Decriminalizes Polygamy in Utah

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The stars of the TLC show Sister Wives filed a lawsuit arguing that their family, made up of Kody Brown and his four wives— Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn— was living under threat of prosecution following a 2010 investigation

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A U.S. District Court judge sided with the stars of the TLC series Sister Wives and struck down key parts of Utah’s law banning polygamy late Friday in a move that effectively decriminalizes polygamy in the state. In a 91-page ruling Judge Clark Waddoups essentially struck down a law that prohibited cohabitation, arguing that it violates “constitutional guarantees of due process and religious freedom,” reports CNN. Bigamy itself is still illegal, but the judge made it clear that would only apply “in the most literal sense,”  meaning when someone fraudulently obtains more than one marriage license. The cohabitation law was the only real tool prosecutors had to go after polygamists in Utah because fundamentalist Mormons perform multiple religious, but not legal, marriages, explains the Salt Lake Tribune.

Despite the big implications of the decision, the “epicenter of Utah polygamy” was quiet the day after the ruling, with most saying they had not heard about the decision and those that had said it wouldn’t change their lives much. “The limited impact of the ruling was the theme of the day in the community, which seems to have learned to live without much attention to bigamy laws,” notes the Salt Lake Tribune. Although the state has said it is studying the decision, Utah’s attorney general’s office has previously said it would appeal any decision that struck down polygamy laws, notes the New York Times.

On Sunday, the Salt Lake Tribune’s polygamy blog published a helpful Q&A that breaks down some of the most significant aspects of the decision:

• What about the claims polygamy is harmful to women and children? This was a big part of the state’s argument, but Waddoups didn’t buy it. He said the state presented no evidence of a correlation between polygamy and such crimes as child abuse, domestic abuse and failure to pay child support.
• What impact did this year’s gay marriage rulings have? It appears none. Neither of the U.S. Supreme Court cases received citations in Waddoups’ ruling. Waddoups did cite the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas that struck down sodomy laws for gay sex, quoting a passage affirming a right to freedom from "unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.

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