Polygamists Rejoice: Federal Court Hands Win to "Sister Wives"

Sister Wives is a reality television show on TLC which depicts (totally unscripted, I'm sure) the joys, trial and tribulations of plural families, i.e., polygamists. While I have never watched the show, nor do I have much of a desire to, what is of interest, beyond the cloistered world of polygamist families in Utah, is that the characters on Sister Wives challenged a Utah state criminal statute making polygamy a crime . . . and won.

The statute states:

A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.

A federal district court judge in Utah, appointed by President George W. Bush, ruled that:

Adultery, including adulterous cohabitation, is not prosecuted. Religious cohabitation, however, is subject to prosecution at the limitless discretion of local and State prosecutors, despite a general policy not to prosecute religiously motivated polygamy. The court finds no rational basis to distinguish between the two, not least with regard to the State interest in protecting the institution of marriage.

It is important to note that this decision does NOT establish a constitutional right to plural marriage, it simply struck down a poorly written state criminal statute. The court's opinion comes in at a whopping 91 pages -- read at your risk.

One First Amendment guru, Professor Eugene Volokh, agrees with the court's decision, but thinks the reasoning the court used is all wet (Volokh thinks the statute is a violation of the Sister Wives' free speech rights). Another law professor argues that this ruling (which he agrees with) makes the case for making decriminalizing beastiality (which he thinks should not be a crime) even stronger.

The State of Utah will surely appeal this ruling to the federal court of appeals, and it may even end up in the Supreme Court's lap eventually. But for now the Sister Wives can breath easier with all the cameras in their home -- at least they won't be criminally prosecuted.

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