Steve Chapman
When it comes to sexual relationships and cohabitation among consenting adults, Utah takes a permissive approach. If a guy wants to shack up with a lady, that's fine. If he wants to shack up with several, no problem. He can father children by different roommates, with no fear of the law.

But if he marries one woman and represents three others as his "spiritual wives," like Kody Brown? Then he's committed a felony. Not because of the stuff that goes on behind closed doors. It's the public act of claiming to be part of a lifelong "plural marriage" that raises the specter of jail.

This came as a surprise to Brown, a "fundamentalist Mormon" whose sect, unlike the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, practices polygamy. Despite the legal ban, prosecutions for polygamy are extremely rare.

Before appearing in a TV reality show called "Sister Wives," Brown was told by authorities he was in no danger of prosecution as long as he wasn't doing anything else illegal, such as consorting with underage girls. But when the show hit the air, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation.

So Brown went to court claiming that his constitutional rights have been violated in various ways. Though it may come as a surprise to hear, he's got a perfectly reasonable argument.

Brown and his lawyer, George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley, don't say the state must sanction such arrangements in law. Nor did Brown try to get multiple marriage licenses, in defiance of the state ban on polygamy.

His case is about freedom, not state recognition. Unlike gay couples who say they should be allowed to legally wed, Brown isn't asking the state to officially accommodate his chosen form of matrimony. He's just asking to be let the hell alone.

Other people, after all, are exempt from such control. Turley says Brown and his women "would not be prosecuted if they claimed no religious obligation and merely had casual or purely sexual associations."

He notes, "Monogamists are allowed an infinite number of sexual partners, and consequently have the right to bear children with multiple partners, so long as they do not claim to be committed to such partners in a union or family."

The law doesn't prevent any man from living with several women, having sex with them and siring their offspring. This behavior is a problem only when a man claims to be permanently wedded to the women -- only, that is, when he behaves more responsibly than a tomcat.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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