Judge Softens Utah's Anti-Polygamy Law To Mixed Reactions

Dec 18, 2013
Originally published on December 18, 2013 7:56 pm

A federal judge's decision to strike down a key part of Utah's ban on polygamy over the weekend came as welcome news to Joe Darger.

Darger, a compact man with a beard and a shaved head, calls himself an "independent Mormon fundamentalist." He has three wives and 25 children.

"When we got the news, it was really surprising how emotional it all hit us," Darger says. "At first, it was excitement, and then as it settled in, it was just kind of some tears of joy."

Darger got the news from his friend Kody Brown, who's seen in the cable TV reality show Sister Wives. Brown and his four wives were the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last year challenging Utah's ban on polygamy. It has been illegal in Utah since the state was formed.

After federal district Judge Clark Waddoups' decision, Utah still prohibits bigamy — a marriage license can only be issued for one spouse at a time. But the ruling does prevent the state from using "cohabitation" as a basis for prosecution. Previously, authorities could prosecute men and women for living together in what appeared to be a polygamous relationship.

Bill Duncan, director of the Marriage Law Foundation and a conservative legal scholar who opposes legalizing polygamy, says the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage played a role in the decision. One of the precedents cited in Waddoups' ruling was the 2003 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which legalized same-sex sexual activity across the U.S.

"I doubt that the court, for instance, when it ruled that Texas could not make it criminal to engage in private consensual sexual relationships, really had in mind the issue of polygamy," he says. "But, of course, if they write the opinion broadly enough, it will apply to that."

Marion Munn, who was in a polygamous marriage for years, studies media portrayals of polygamy at the University of Utah. She says it's important to look at the women in polygamous relationships and why they're agreeing to live that way.

Many women "are doing it because of a certain amount of religious coercion," she says — particularly young girls in polygamous communities, who are vulnerable to pressure from their parents and religious leaders to become an older man's wife.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert says he objects to what he sees as a federal court meddling in state affairs.

"I'm always a little concerned when we have decisions that change public policy by the courts," he says. "I would much rather see decisions on social issues come from our Legislature, representing the will of the people."

In their book Love Times Three, Darger and his three wives talk about how they were always worried that state authorities would prosecute them for their lifestyle or take their children away. Now, Darger says, he wants to celebrate.

"I'm free for the first time. I feel a sense of relief from having the heavy-handedness of the law," he says.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave up polygamy in 1890. Today, it excommunicates members in polygamous marriages and objects to the use of the term "Mormon" to describe those who keep the practice alive, even as today's polygamists cite the church's early teachings and scripture to justify it.

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Transcript

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Those who support so-called plural marriages are celebrating a ruling by a U.S. district court. The judge in the case struck down a key part of Utah's ban on polygamy.

Dan Bammes with member station KUER in Salt Lake City reports.

DAN BAMMES, BYLINE: Joe Darger is a compact man with a beard and a shaved head. He doesn't look at all different from the other homebuilders he's been meeting with at a coffee shop in Herriman, a suburb of Salt Lake City. Darger calls himself an independent Mormon fundamentalist. He has three wives and 25 children.

JOE DARGER: When we got the news, it was really surprising how emotional it all hit us. At first, it was excitement. And then as it just settled in, it was just kind of some tears of joy.

BAMMES: Darger got the news from his friend Kody Brown, who's seen in the cable TV reality show "Sister Wives." Brown and his four wives were the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last year, challenging Utah's ban on polygamy.

Federal district judge Clark Waddoups' decision maintains Utah's prohibition on bigamy: A marriage license can only be issued for one spouse at a time. But the ruling does prevent the state from using cohabitation as a basis for prosecution. Previously, authorities could prosecute men and women living together in what appeared to be a polygamous relationship.

Attorney Bill Duncan directs the Marriage Law Foundation. He says the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage played a role in this decision. One of the precedents cited in Judge Waddoups' ruling was the 2003 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence versus Texas.

BILL DUNCAN: I doubt that the court, for instance, that when it ruled that Texas could not make it criminal to engage in private consensual sexual relationships, really had in mind the issue of polygamy. But, of course, if they write the opinion broadly enough, it will apply to that.

MARION MUNN: The problem is, with this consenting adults point of view, is that why are women actually in polygamy actually agreeing to live that way.

BAMMES: Marion Munn left the polygamous marriage she lived in for years. Today, she studies media portrayals of polygamy as part of her graduate studies at the University of Utah.

MUNN: My contention is that, in the main, if not, you know, almost all are doing it because of a certain amount of religious coercion.

BAMMES: Munn says young girls in polygamous communities are particularly vulnerable to pressure from their parents and religious leaders to become an older man's wife.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert told reporters he objects to what he sees as a federal court meddling in state affairs.

GOVERNOR GARY HERBERT: I'm always a little concerned when we have decisions that change public policy by the courts. I'd much rather see decisions on social issues come from our legislature representing the will of the people.

BAMMES: In their book "Love Times Three," Joe Darger and his three wives talk about how they were always worried that state authorities would prosecute them for their lifestyle or take their children away. Now, he says he just wants to celebrate.

DARGER: I'm free. For the first time, I feel a sense of relief from having the heavy-handedness of the law.

BAMMES: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave up polygamy in 1890. Today, it excommunicates members in polygamous marriages, and even objects to the use of the term Mormon to describe those who keep the practice alive, even as today's polygamists cite the church's early teachings and scripture to justify it.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Bammes in Salt Lake City.

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