Polygamists Singled Out Again in Utah

Utah's new bigamy law prescribes what people can call private relationships and provides authorities with a convenient tool for suppression when polygamist families get too vocal.


Big Love/HBO

Under Utah's previous polygamy law, marriage to more than one person—bigamy—was a felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison. A new measure (HB99), signed into law by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on March 28, doesn't change that. But it does tweak the definition of bigamy and add enhanced penalties for people who commit other crimes in conjunction with plural marriage.

The change stems from a lawsuit filed by Kody Brown and his spouses, who starred in the popular reality-TV series Sister Wives. Kody is legally married to his first wife, Meri, and "spiritually married" to three other women. After Utah police began investigating the family, in 2010, the Browns moved out of state to Nevada. They later filed a suit alleging that Utah's bigamy law is unconstitutional, as it doesn't merely prevent people from having multiple state-sanctioned marriages but prescribes what people can call their private relationships and how they can practice their faith.

After all, a married couple in Utah can legally bring in myriad long-term lovers to live with them. A polyamorous triad can all live together and be in a joint relationship without state interference. But the moment participants in such arrangements refer to more than one relationship as a marriage, they are suddenly committing a felony. If it isn't unconstitutional, it's at least incredibly silly.

The Brown family was initially victorious in their legal challenge, with a federal judge ruling in their favor in 2013. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled in 2016 that the Browns had no standing to challenge Utah's law, since they had never actually been prosecuted for bigamy. The Browns appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has declined to hear the case.

This year, Utah lawmakers decided to double-down on the state's bigamy statute. Under HB 99, bigamy becomes a second-degree felony if a defendant is also suspected of fraud, domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual assault, human smuggling, or human trafficking; as such, it's punishable by up to 15 years in prison, in addition to any penalties for those separate offenses. Anyone fleeing from abuse in a polygamous relationship is now immune from bigamy prosecution.

The law also changes the definition of bigamy by removing references to gender, making it now applicable to women with multiple husbands or same-sex polygamous relationships. And it requires both cohabitation and "purport[ing] to marry" someone when either you or they are already married for bigamy to be committed; before only one or the other was required.

There are thought to be about 30,000 polygamists in Utah. What will the new law mean for them?

Probably not much, according to The Salt Lake Tribune:

Polygamists and some sympathetic attorneys have said HB99 will be unconstitutional if it's applied to consenting adults who choose to live as such a family. Joe Darger, who has three wives and was the most vocal opponent of the bill, has dared prosecutors to charge him.

Darger doesn't think that will happen. After Herbert signed the bill Tuesday, Darger said the goal of HB99 appeared to be to keep polygamists silent by making their lifestyles a crime. "This is more for persecution than it ever is intended for prosecution," the polygamist said.

The Utah attorney general's office and every county attorney who has been asked has said his or her policies are not to prosecute families like the Dargers. Assistant Attorney General Parker Douglas testified to the Legislature that prosecutors are concerned with polygamists who commit fraud and abuse.

In other words, lawmakers seem to know the statute could be unconstitutional but say cool because they don't plan to actually enforce it against anyone but bad people. We've heard similarly from Donald Trump recently with regard to deportations. It hasn't held true for immigration enforcement, however, and it's unlikely to prove true for Utah polygamists. Sure, law enforcement might not go looking for ordinary polygamists to prosecute, but it provides a convenient tool for suppression when any polygamist families or activists do start getting too visible and vocal.

Retired defense attorney and legal scholar Ken Driggs, a sixth generation member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, deemed Utah's new bigamy law "a solution in search of a problem" that makes it a crime "to make purely personal vows." It runs "contrary to established constitutional law" and "will not survive a court challenge," he warned Gov. Herbert in a Mrach 15 letter urging him to veto.

Driggs explained that he has done extensive research on the history of anti-bigamy laws in America and on Utah's polygamist families. He initially "brought the usual stereotypes" about polygamists with him, but has since been shown how wrong he was. "There are many strong, very accomplished women in this world," writes Driggs. And in his experience, "'sister wives' are seen as co-parents by children in [polygammist] homes," which are as functional and fine for children as more typical arrangements. Claims that "criminal prosecution of Fundamentalist Mormons cannot succeed without some sort of special Fundamentalist Mormon criminal code which HB 99 tries to create" are "poppycock," Driggs concludes, "and certainly unconstitutional. Abuses in the past have been successfully prosecuted using ordinary criminal law established for the population as a whole."

Laws criminalizing bigamy can also help abusive, cult-leader type polygamists. Utah resident Shirlee Draper, who grew up in the polygamist Mormon sect, said things there were normal until Warren Jeffs came to power and "started doing under age marriages, he started closing down the schools, he started building walls and telling us we had to shun our apostate relatives." People like Jeffs are "empowered by these laws," Draper told ABC4 News, "because then they go to their people and say look: see, now you know that the world is against you, you know that your only safety is in obeying me. and so it gives them power, it gives them credence, and it gives them a lot more leeway to commit the horrible things that they do."

Testifying against the new measure in February, Draper told lawmakers she has "no love for polygamy." But "to tell me I would have been a felon for practicing my religion, I would have gone underground."

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  1. Under Utah’s previous polygamy law, marriage to more than one person?bigamy?was a felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

    Now that’s how you outlaw marriage.

    1. Or divorce. (I’ve had two wives, so I guess I’m a serial bigamist?)

      1. Serial incidentalist I’d bravely note.

  2. …And it requires both cohabitation and “purport[ing] to marry” someone when either you or they are already married for bigamy to be committed; before only one or the other was required….
    Violation of the 1st Amendment anyone?

    This is becoming incredibly urgent for the Utah state government, since they continue to prove that allowing them into the Union was not a mistake and because gay marriage now allows any persons to marry whomever they want.

    1. Well, this provision is an improvement, it makes it more difficult for the state to bring bigamy charges. Is it meant to balance out the other provisions that can subject people who can be charges with bigamy and some other crimes to those extra penalties?

  3. The gall of goddamn humanity realizes zero fucking boundaries. However creeping, unadulterated retrograde is the withering wasting result of subjection to the social aims and policies of cancerous busybodies.

    Lifelong contractual commitments involving numbers, romance, and children are the distinct and sole business of those adults involved in said arrangements and how the fuck a group of law-ventilating society-dominating fleshsacks can look their ceramic visages in the mirror with even remote contentedness illustrates the ravages elitist entitlement and educated privilege wreaks on the doughy malformed cognitions of Main Street, USA tyrants.

    2017 is yet another shitty number that represents emptiness on the continuum of history and its relationship to developmental wisdom. Perpetual hollowness abounds.

  4. This idea of criminalizing fantasy is insane and should be unconstitutional. The state doesn’t recognize the purported plural marriage for all purposes except for the imposition of criminal sanctions. I’d like to kick these people in the fucking teeth. I really would. They deserve it too.

    1. The corrupt Mormons in the Utah Legislature feel the need to waste state money to head off Americans thinking Mormons are kooky because of plural marriage.

      What these Mormons don’t seem to realize is that Americans think Mormons are crazy because Mormonism is a cult.

      The men think they get to go to Kolob, their own planet. That show Sister Wives is a threat to the public face of Mormonism and must be stopped!

      For a summary of crazy Mormom beliefs try South Park:
      dumb dumb dumb

      1. Read The Book of Mormon. The first few pages are good for a laugh. I couldn’t get much farther than that. Be it as it may, I really don’t give a fuck what they do. I support their right to be crazy religious fanatics.

        1. “I support their right to be crazy religious fanatics”- Yes I support too.
          Pushing that crazy religious fanaticism on other people in Utah via law- Not okay.

      2. For a summary of crazy Christian beliefs, start reading the old Testament. Or skip straight to Leviticus.

        1. Opiate of the masses.

          I find it fascinating that as people get really old, they find religion. Its like they get so scared of dying.

      3. My great-great great grandfather had 4 wives and 30 kids.

  5. [Utah] lawmakers seem to know the statute could be unconstitutional but say cool because they don’t plan to actually enforce it against anyone but bad people.

    So much for “Nation Of Laws?”

    We’ve heard similarly from Donald Trump recently with regard to deportations.


  6. “But the moment participants in such arrangements refer to more than one relationship as a marriage, they are suddenly committing a felony. If it isn’t unconstitutional, it’s at least incredibly silly.”
    It is also, on its face, a violation of the first amendment right to free speech. They claim only SAYING you are in a marriage is a crime, not being in a marriage. And a marriage law that makes distinction based on religion. What about the old standby, “establishment of religion”?
    Just further proof that governments should NOT be involved in the religious institution of marriage. (among other things)

  7. There’s simply no reason used to support gay marriage that can’t also be applied to polygamy and incest. In fact, both polygamy and incest are found far more often in the history of human civilizations, in cultures today, and in nature than homosexual relationships. The “can of worms” has indeed been opened, and anybody who supports anti-incest and anti-polygamy laws is a raging bigot, according to the standards used by the enlightened left today.

    Love is love, motherfuckers.

    1. I’ve thought since the legalization of gay marriage that it was a little bizarre that things like bigamy are simply left out in the cold, and I predicted that within a decade weird things like this would rear up their heads and croak ‘bigotry’.

      I honestly do have a real problem with incest since it reinforces negative genetic traits which could be considered a type of harm (to the child) not to mention the level of madness it would take to normalize sexual contact with a person you’ve had power and influence over since their literal birth.

      Personally, I see no reason why if two guys can get married and bumfuck each other why ten men can’t do the same and call it marriage. The institution is no longer about God, about religion, or about anything outside of government benefits. That is an inescapable fact since this ruling. (For better or worse, frankly.)

      Since that’s now a given, why is two still the magic number?

      My guess is they don’t want one guy marrying the entire nation of Slovenia and importing the entire population by marriage, but that’s the bed our government made. Shouldn’t they have to lie in it?

  8. There are thought to be about 30,000 polygamists in Utah.

    I just want to know what they do with all the beta cucks that can’t find a wife.

    1. Generally, they offload them onto other towns and stop taking their calls.

    2. They are renamed ‘Susan’ and assigned a…oh. Nevermind. I’ll need to measure your thetan’s before I can fully answer your question.

  9. I’m super embarrassed to admit to having any neurons in my brain carrying information about the show Sister Wives, but I believe one of the central plot controversies has been over the fact that Kody divorced Meri in 2014-ish? and legally married Robin. So that “is” could be a “was”. It’s minutia though, the point of the article remains the same, and this was another good ENB post that gives me a lot of links to follow and stuff to think about.

  10. Would would’ve would would.

    I’m for any law that will only be used against the bad people.

    1. Is it just me or do the women get younger left to right?

  11. Silence from the so called ‘Love Wins’ crowd

  12. US courts that outlawed polygamy essentially used racist arguments such as “only asians engage in polygamy and no need to make it legal in christian america”.

  13. t requires both cohabitation and “purport[ing] to marry” someone when either you or they are already married for bigamy to be committed; before only one or the other was required.

    How hard would it be for the courts to interpret “purporting to marry” as “purporting (to the person being married) to be (legally) married” ?

    If the courts interpret it that way doesn’t this basically restrict the bigamy law to deceiving the person being married?

  14. The eagerness of the state to meddle in citizens’ private lives is distributed according to political correctness. Notice that the state wouldn’t dream of interfering with homosexuals who claim to be married, but the state does interfere when a man claims to be married to more than one woman. There’s probably a reason for that. I’ll live it to each reader of this comment to figure out what it is. Well, okay, no I won’t. The state is corrupted by perverts and by people who want to help the perverts destroy our civilization. The latter is disproportionately numerous among the directors of the Federal Reserve and among the directors of the mass media, and they are, moreover, distinct from the American majority by race and by religious preference. And they often have big noses, the better to meddle in our affairs.

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