Just days after New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan ominously predicted that after gay marriage was legalized, polygamy would be next, an Mormon family in Utah (who happen to be reality TV stars) announced that they will file a lawsuit against Utah’s anti-bigamy law in federal court. The Brown family, which consists of a husband, four wives, and sixteen children, claim that the law is unconstitutional.
Currently, the husband, Koby Brown, is legally married to only one wife, Meri. The other three (Janelle, Christine, and Robyn) are his “spiritual wives.” But the family still ran afoul of Utah’s anti-bigamy law, which makes marriage to more than one person a third-degree felony. Because the law can also be applied to cohabitation, the Browns were forced to move to Nevada earlier this year after Utah County prosecutors launched an investigation. No charges have yet been filed; prosecutors say they’ll decide whether to bring charges in the next few weeks.
The family is the subject of a TLC reality show, Sister Wives, which made its debut last September. Although drawing attention to their family in such a public way was risky, the Browns felt they had to show that a polygamous lifestyle was not so bizarre. ”It’s OK for us to live this way, honestly,” said Robyn Brown. “I’m sorry — but this is a nation of freedom of choice. We should have this choice, and I want my kids to know that.”
The Browns’ lawyer, Jonathan Turley, says that the state is unfairly prosecuting a law-abiding family for a private, religiously-based living arrangement. He cites the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, in which the court ruled that the state could not prosecute people for private, consensual sexual behavior (in this case, gay sex).
Naturally, the same people who Dolan used to back up his argument about the looming threats to marriage are speaking out about this case as well. “State laws to protect public morality by prohibiting what have been regarded as immoral sexual conduct just can’t stand constitutional scrutiny,” explained conservative constitutional law professor Robert George, who is affiliated with the infamous National Organization for Marriage. “So, if they accept the logic of their own principles, then Turley is going to win this in a knockdown.”
Of course, there are significant differences – one of the most serious concerns with legalizing polygamous relationships in any form is the frequency with which underage girls are brought into partnerships with much older men. When fundamentalist Mormons talk about “polygamy,” they really mean “polygyny,” or the marriage of many women to one man. Experts claim that this form of polygamy, which emphasizes male dominance over women, is often harmful to women and children. These are separate issues than whether two consenting adults can participate in a sexual relationship, or if these same adults have the right to marry, regardless of their gender.
This case is unlikely to get far, according to experts. But it’s worth noting because of the enthusiasm with which same-sex marriage’s opponents use polygamy as a dire “next step.” Regulating “immoral” sexual behavior is a complex matter, and polygamy is a challenging issues, especially as polyamorous living arrangements slowly become more mainstream. But there are still serious concerns with polygamy, especially as practiced by fundamentalist Mormons, which are not going to go away just because two men in New York can now marry.
Photo from kenlund via flickr.