January 4

COMMENTARY: Thanks to the ‘Sister Wives’ lawsuit, we have one less morality law

Jonathan Turley

The decision last month by a federal court striking down the criminalization of polygamy in Utah was met with a mix of rejoicing and rage. What was an emancipating decision for thousands of plural families was denounced as the final descent into a moral abyss by others.

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Kody Brown,: of the TLC reality show “Sister Wives,” along with his four “wives,” from left, Robyn, Christine, Meri and Janelle, filed suit in 2011 to challenge parts of the law that they claimed violated their privacy rights. A federal judge last month struck down key parts of Utah’s polygamy ban as unconstitutional.

AP photo by TLC

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Former Sen. Rick Santorum was among the social conservatives trying to claim the moral high ground. He tweeted: “Some times I hate it when what I predict comes true” — referring to his 2003 claim that legalizing “consensual sex within your home” would lead to the legalization of polygamy and “undermine the fabric of our society.” (Three days later, with no apparent sense of self-contradiction, he expressed outrage about the removal of a Nativity scene at a South Carolina military base, tweeting: “Our Constitution protects free exercise of religion. No govt entity/official has the right to limit that.”)

It’s true that the Utah ruling is one of the latest examples of a national trend away from laws that impose a moral code. There is a difference, however, between the demise of morality laws and the demise of morality. This distinction appears to escape social conservatives nostalgic for a time when the government dictated whom you could live with or sleep with. The rejection of moral codes, however, is no more a rejection of morality than the rejection of speech codes is a rejection of free speech. Our morality laws are falling, and we are a better nation for it.

In the Utah case, I was the lead counsel for the Browns, the polygamous family featured in the TLC reality program “Sister Wives.” They are members of the Apostolic United Brethren Church, and they have one marriage license and three “spiritual” marriages among them. After the first episode of “Sister Wives” aired, state prosecutors threatened to bring charges under a Utah law that made it a crime when a married person “purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.” The Browns were under investigation for two years and were called felons publicly before they took prosecutors to court in a challenge to the constitutionality of the law.

The case was never about the recognition of multiple marriages or the acceptance of the religious values underlying this plural family. It was about the right of consenting adults to make decisions for themselves and their families. Judge Clark Waddoups, a conservative George W. Bush appointee, ruled that the criminalization of cohabitation clearly violated the due process clause and the free exercise clause of the United States Constitution.

In doing so, he departed from the prevailing precedent: the Supreme Court’s opinion in Reynolds v. United States, which upheld a ban on polygamy in 1879. Waddoups wrote that courts today are “less inclined to allow majoritarian coercion of unpopular or disliked minority groups, especially when blatant racism ... religious prejudice, or some other constitutionally suspect motivation, can be discovered behind such legislation.”

Indeed, in Reynolds, religious and racial prejudice were vividly on display. The court unleashed a tirade of indignation and condemnation, stating, “Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people.” Just a few years later, the Supreme Court also upheld the criminalization of mixed-race relations in Pace v. Alabama.

The idea that polygamy was a “barbarous practice” and contrary to democratic principles drove the demand in the late 1880s and ’90s that Utah outlaw it as a condition of statehood. And in Mormon Church v. United States (1890), the Supreme Court labeled polygamy as “abhorrent to the sentiments and feelings of the civilized world.”

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