In Utah, it is no longer illegal for someone to cohabitate with someone with whom they are not married, following a decision in the lawsuit Brown v. Buhman. The case was filed by Kody Brown, who is the patriarch of the polygamous Brown family featured on the TLC show "Sister Wives." While this technically means living a polygamous lifestyle is now effectively decriminalized in Utah, a person is still prohibited from having multiple marriage licenses.
Federal Judge Clark Waddoups in December struck the section of Utah’s bigamy statute that can be applied when someone "cohabits with another person" to whom they are not legally married. Utah law made such a union a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Waddoups said the ban violated the First and 14th amendments to the Constitution.
Waddoups let stand the portion of the statute that prevents someone from having more than one active marriage license.
In the final portion of his ruling Wednesday, Waddoups found the Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman violated the Browns’ constitutional rights when he oversaw a 2010 investigation into whether the Brown family was committing bigamy. At the time the Browns lived in Lehi. They have since moved to Nevada. Buhman eventually decided not to file criminal charges, but Waddoups said the investigation stifled the Browns’ rights to free speech, religion and equal protection.
While there certainly are legitimate concerns regarding the safety of children in polygamist marriages, particularly those who live in isolated compounds, laws against child abuse already exist. If other crimes are happening (child abuse, neglect, etc.) in these unions, then the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The U.S. has generally leaned toward a "benevolent neutrality" on freedom of religion-based court cases—that is, the government would seek to avoid imposing restrictions on a church that would result in its closure. This decision seems to be in line with that train of thought, as well as with previous Supreme Court rulings concerning privacy rights.
While I personally find the concept of plural marriage to be undesirable, I agree with the judge's ruling that the law prohibiting cohabitation likely overstepped the boundaries of religious freedom. I also find it fair that the portion of the law prohibiting someone from being legally married to more than one person was allowed to stand.
Both sides are planning appeals of the decision.
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