‘Plural marriages’ allowed but polygamy is still illegal

Remember when opponents of same-sex marriage warned that changing the idea that marriage can only be between one man and one woman would inevitably lead to polygamy, bestiality, marrying of children, and other horrors? It should not be too hard to recall since they are still making those same arguments.

Those people received what they thought was an “I told you so” moment when a US District Court judge in Utah outlawed as unconstitutional a state law that banned cohabitation. (You can read the ruling here.)

The ruling came about after reality TV polygamist Kody Brown and his wives, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn, sued the state of Utah in 2011, challenging the ban on polygamy. The family came under scrutiny from Utah County authorities after they appeared on the show “Sister Wives,” promoting their lifestyle.

The Browns argued that Utah’s anti-polygamy laws violated their right to privacy and their right to freely practice their religion.

However, the judge did not allow polygamy. One can still legally have only one wife or husband. But you can live with as many as you like and call them all wives and husbands if you wish.

Judge Waddoups’ ruling did not completely overturn Utah’s ban on polygamy. It did, however, narrow it to only the simplest definition of bigamy: multiple marriage licenses.

In his ruling, Waddoups wrote that the statute remained in force “as prohibiting bigamy in the literal sense — the fraudulent or otherwise impermissible possession of two purportedly valid marriage licenses for the purpose of entering into more than one purportedly legal marriage.”

Jonathan Turley was one of the attorneys arguing on behalf of the ‘Sister Wives’ and has more analysis.

The decision affects a far greater range of such relationships than the form of polygamy practiced by the Browns. It is a victory not for polygamy but privacy in America.

The court struck down that part of the statute that criminalized co-habitation between consenting adults — allowing plural families to step out for the first time in their communities and live their lives openly among their neighbors. What remains of the statute was narrowly construed by the Court to limit future prosecutions to traditional bigamy, i.e. individuals with multiple marriage licenses.

So basically the judge was saying that the state could not interfere with whom you lived with or what you called them, which seems perfectly reasonable to me.


  1. raven says

    The polygamy laws weren’t enforced or enforceable anyway.

    There are an estimated 60,000 polygamists in Utah, and they have’t prosecuted anyone for that in decades.

  2. Alverant says

    It’s also hard to draw a line between LGBT marriage and one man having many wives since the anti-equal marriage crowd likes to invoke religion and religion is also invoked in justifying having multiple wives.

  3. khms says

    As far as I can tell, all arguments against polygamy boil down to two core ideas:

    1. It’s against my religion! It’s icky!

    And nobody else should care what your religion says about it.

    2. It leads to exploitation!

    Pretty much everything can lead to that. And it certainly doesn’t have to lead there. So that’s another bad argument.

    The only real (and pretty weak) argument I can come up with (and I don’t think I’ve actually seen anybody use it) is that there’s no established law for that, so as soon as there are problems (and all of us being humans, there will be sooner or later), it’s unclear what the right way to handle it is. For example, who has to say “yes” when going from three partners to four? What happens with a divorce? How does inheritance work with siblings from any number of possible parent pairs (plus various siblings of the parents, and their parents)? Who is responsible for debts incurred by a subset? What is the responsibility of relatives of the partners, in case the shit hits the fan? What does polygamy do when combined with patchwork families?

    Nothing there is unsolvable, but a lot isn’t exactly obvious, either.

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