‘Sister Wives’ Lawsuit: Utah’s Polygamy Ban Restored, Next Step Supreme Court?

A court of appeals decision is bringing back a ban on polygamy in Utah, overruling a lawsuit decision in favor of the stars of the reality TV show Sister Wives. The battle is not over, but for now, plural marriage in Utah remains in a legally ambiguous state.

According to the ABC News, on Monday, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a 2013 decision that struck down part of Utah’s laws that ban bigamy and holding multiple marriage licenses. The judge in that decision, Judge Clark Waddoups, had ruled the ban violated polygamists’ right to privacy and religious freedom.

The new decision doesn’t consider the merits of the case, but instead insists it is moot. Officials claim that the ban is only consequential if other laws were broken in connection to polygamy, such as underage marriage. For the Brown family of Sister Wives, that argument likely seems tone deaf.

The Brown family speaking at a TLC panel event in 2010. [Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images]
They agreed to allow TLC to film their day-to-day lives for a reality show to fight against prejudice and negative stereotypes of polygamy. The family’s patriarch, Kody Brown, legally has only one wife but lives with three other spiritual wives and their 18 children.

The series led to an investigation against the Browns by police in their hometown of Lehi, Utah, because the bigamy ban potentially considers cohabitation with other partners common-law marriages.

The Browns filed a civil case in Utah afterward to fight the laws but admitted they knew this was a risk.

“We are disappointed in the announcement of an investigation, but when we decided to do this show, we knew there would be risks. But for the sake of our family, and most importantly, our kids, we felt it was a risk worth taking.”

The criminal charges were dropped, but the civil case has kept going. By claiming the case is moot, the judge is essentially saying that the family was under no actual risk of prosecution in Utah, despite local police actions.

So why does the polygamy ban exist if it’s not enforced?

Supporters of Utah’s ban say it’s needed to help fight against people like Warren Jeffs. According to the Washington Post, Jeffs was the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, one of the largest fundamentalist Mormon sects in Utah. The church practices polygyny (a narrow version of polygamy that allows a man to have more than one wife), but became notorious for marrying off underage women to older men (who in some cases were even related to their spouses).

Kody Brown told the Las Vegas Sun, “Warren Jeffs is not our poster child.”

“When I talked with my children about doing the show, I said we have an opportunity to not only change our world, but to change the world for everyone else.”

Warren Jeffs was charged with coercing the marriage and rape of one of his 14-year-old followers by her 19-year-old cousin back in 2001, he's now serving a life sentence. [Photo by Douglas C. Pizac-Pool/Getty Images]
The Brown’s church, Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), believes in polygamy but has tried to be transparent with law enforcement to extinguish rumors of arranged and underage marriages.

Proponents of plural marriage say the court decision has dealt a blow to religious freedom and will force many families back into the dark. But the Browns say they will fight on. Their attorney, Jonathan Turley, released a statement.

“The underlying rights of religious freedom and free speech are certainly too great to abandon. … This lawsuit is true to the original dream of those seeking freedom in Utah.”

The next step will be to either ask the 10th circuit court to review the lawsuit against the Utah’s polygamy ban, or take the matter to the Supreme Court.

[Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]