Federal judge strikes down part of Utah anti-bigamy law

[JURIST] The US District Court for the District of Utah [official website] struck down part of Utah's anti-bigamy law [statute, text] on Friday in the case of Brown v. Buhman [opinion, PDF], holding that the cohabitation prong of the state law is a facial violation of the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment [text]. Judge Clark Waddoups, in a 91-page opinion, acknowledged that although "cohabitation" might arguably have been a necessary addition to nineteenth-century federal anti-polygamy legislation in light of the historical context, its inclusion in the statute is a constitutional violation under the Free Exercise Clause. Under Utah law, religious cohabitation occurs when "[t]hose who choose to live together without getting married enter into a personal relationship that resembles a marriage in its intimacy but claims no legal sanction." While the court emphasized and reiterated that no fundamental right exists to engage in polygamy, specifically the act of entering into a second purportedly legal matrimonial union when already legally married, the court supported its finding by noting "the commonplace occurrence of cohabitation in contemporary society." In this specific instance, the plaintiff-family uses the terminology of marriage "for their own religious purposes," though not purporting "to have actually acquired the legal status of marriage." As the court stated, the argument in support of the state law reveals that its objective "is to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation."

Kody Brown and his four wives, the plaintiffs in this case, are stars of TLC's reality show Sister Wives [media website]. As of the summer of 2012, a police investigation [Salt Lake Tribune report] against them had been ongoing since September 2010, when the show was first announced and premiered. Utah's anti-bigamy law has been on the books since 1862. The family challenged the law [JURIST report] in 2011 as a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. While polygamy is now recognized in most of Africa and the Middle East, it is still illegal in most of North and South America, Europe and China. In 2005, the US District Court for the District of Utah rejected a similar lawsuit [JURIST report] brought against the same state law, reaffirming the 1879 US Supreme Court case Reynolds v. United States [text], which upheld a conviction under an anti-polygamy law as constitutional.

 

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