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Conservatives say Utah polygamy ruling confirms their worst fears


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Kody Brown, right, stars in TLC's "Sister Wives" with wives (left to right) Christine, Meri, Robyn and Janelle.

Kody Brown, right, stars in TLC’s “Sister Wives” with wives (left to right) Christine, Meri, Robyn and Janelle. Photo courtesy Joe Pugliese/TLC

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(RNS) Fueling debates over marriage and religious freedom, a federal judge declared on Dec. 13 Utah laws criminalizing polygamy are unconstitutional, ruling on a case involving the Brown family from TLC’s reality series “Sister Wives.”

Social conservatives who have argued for marriage solely between one man and one woman have long warned that allowing gay marriage would ultimately lead to allowing polygamy — an argument that’s both feared and rejected by gay marriage proponents.

Perhaps not surprisingly, groups advocating for legalizing gay marriage were quiet in response, saying that legalizing polygamy is not part of their mandate.

At the same time, proponents of traditional marriage did a victory lap of sorts, saying their worst fears are starting to come true.

“Same-sex marriage advocates have told us that people ought to be able to ‘marry who they love’ but have also always downplayed the idea that this would lead to legalized polygamy, a practice that very often victimizes women and children,” said Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, in a statement on Monday (Dec. 16).

“But if love and mutual consent become the definition of what the boundaries of marriage are, can we as a society any longer even define marriage coherently?”

The case involves the cast of “Sister Wives,” which entered its fourth season earlier this year, featuring Kody Brown and his four wives. The Browns are members of a fundamentalist Mormon group, not part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which does not condone the practice of polygamy.

“While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our beliefs,” Kody Brown said in a statement. ”Just as we respect the personal and religious choices of other families, we hope that in time all of our neighbors and fellow citizens will come to respect our own choices.”

A 2012 Pew Research survey found little acceptance of polygamy among Mormons with 86 percent of them saying it is morally wrong. Wider American opinion on gay marriage, meanwhile, has evolved over the past decade. In Pew Research polling in 2001, Americans opposed gay marriage 57 percent to 35 percent. Two 2013 polls suggest 50 percent of Americans are in favor of gay marriage with 43 percent opposed.

U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups’ ruling attacked sections of Utah’s laws against cohabitation, saying in his decision that the phrase “or cohabits with another person” is a violation of both the First and 14th amendments.

In his decision, Waddoups, who was nominated by President George W. Bush, writes that while there is no “fundamental right” to practice polygamy, the issue really comes down to “religious cohabitation.”

The judge’s ruling does not say that Utah has to recognize multiple marriages, said Brad Greenberg, a research scholar at Columbia Law School. The Supreme Court has repeatedly indicated that determining who can marry is almost exclusively the province of the states, he said.

“A ban on polygamous marriage does little to deter those who want to enter into multiple marriages, some illegally, and then live together,” Greenberg said. “So Utah’s criminal ban on cohabitation sought to address these practices with a broader ban. That is what Judge Waddoups ruled was unconstitutional, because it criminalizes conduct outside Utah’s ability to define marriage, and in doing so encroaches on First Amendment protections.”

The Brown family filed a lawsuit in July 2011, saying that Utah’s law violated their right to privacy, relying on the 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Texas law banning sodomy.

In hearings for the case, according to The Salt Lake Tribune reportWaddoups focused on the definition of a polygamous relationship, asking for the difference between a polygamous relationship between one man and several wives and an unmarried man who chooses to have intimate relationships with three women.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Jerrold Jensen argued that a polygamous relationship is different because it was defined by people representing themselves as married.

The Browns have only entered into one legally recognized marriage, so they could have faced prosecution for calling their relationship a marriage, a decision they made based on their religion.

In response to the judge’s decision, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said he is ”always a little concerned” when public policy changes are made by the courts.

Attorney Jonathan Turley, who argued the case for the Browns, said in a blog post that the decision “was a victory not for polygamy but privacy in America.”

“Utah has achieved something equally important today: true equality of its citizens regardless of their personal faiths or practices,” Turley wrote.

In his ruling, the judge took a narrow interpretation of the words “marry” and “purports to marry,” meaning that bigamy remains illegal, such as when someone fraudulently acquires multiple marriage licenses.


The post Conservatives say Utah polygamy ruling confirms their worst fears appeared first on Religion News Service.

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Mark Hilditch
Mark Hilditch
10 years ago

Am I the only one who finds it jaw-droppingly ironic that the attorney who argued FOR the constitutionality of polygamy is lauding Utah for “achieving true equality for its citizens” with this ruling? Equality? Wouldn’t that be the state encouraging marriages which involve just two people? From what I have seen and heard of the longstanding practice of polygamy in rural Utah, it is a far cry from anything resembling equality for the women. You get a fraction of a husband, he gets as many wives as he chooses. Where is the equality in that?

Eric Blauer
10 years ago

If scripture and reason do not guide and govern human sexuality than there is no reason for there to be any restraint or boundaries on human sexuality.

As I was reading the advent passages this year, I couldn’t help notice how John the Baptist lost his head for speaking out against Herod’s unrestrained sexual appetites.

Mark 6:17-19: “For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him.”

He stood in opposition to Herod’s desires. He dared call something so personal as sexual feelings as lawful and unlawful…ie. right or wrong. He was imprisoned and ultimately lost his life by daring to call something sin.

Jesus clearly taught everything “originally intended” for marraige in Matthew 19:4-8

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’” And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” “Then why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?”they asked. Jesus replied, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.”

We keep passing mileposts on this jounrey of cultural ‘sexual liberation’ and this is just the next one. It seems to be speeding up too, I wonder what will come next?

Jan Shannon
10 years ago

I think the title of the article is exactly the issue at hand – “Conservatives…fears.” The level of passion that is exhibited by conservatives on the issue of polygamy, homosexuality, and a host of other social issues, is obviously fueled by their fear, because fear is generally what fuels ALL such passions. The question at the base of these discussions should be: at what point is someone married? Is it when the clergy pronounces them married? That’s fairly egotistical from my point of view. Is it when they sleep together? Then there’s a LOT of married people who have no idea that they are. Is it when the people involved decide to be married? Make a heart-committment to each other? And isn’t any sin involved only the business of the would-be sinners and no one else’s?
This article is about one government agency telling another one what a legal marriage looks like, and I’m in favor of same-gender marriage and I’m now thinking through polygamist marriage, but in reality, it’s not up to me!
And, as far as the biblical take on marriage and divorce, those values might, might, have been for those times, and times have changed.
One thing I know for sure, the argument that “polygamy… is a practice that very often victimizes women and children,” conventional, opposite-gender, marriage does too, and yet the conservative church continues to stand behind the abusers and allow defenseless women and children be harmed and even killed year after year!! When the conservative churches FINALLY stand-up for the helpless, then we might see people flocking back to churches.

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