Polygamy is knocking at the door of the U.S. Supreme Court.
A polygamous family featured in the reality television show "Sister Wives" asked the justices Sept. 12 to review a lower-court ruling that had reversed a federal judge’s decision in favor of the polygamists. The high court will decide in the months ahead whether to grant review and rule on the case.
Defenders of the biblical and historic view of marriage already were following the case and will continue to do so to see if the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage will extend beyond its incorporation of same-sex relationships. The justices legalized gay marriage in 2015.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pointed out during his Sept. 13 podcast there “isn’t any great groundswell of support” for legalizing polygamy but that could change quickly.
"Ten years ago, indeed even less than 10 years ago, there was no public groundswell in support of same-sex marriage," Mohler said on "The Briefing."
“That’s how a moral revolution works,” he said. “The groundswell doesn’t exist. Then it is created by forces in the culture, including the academic arguments of the elites, the legal arguments of the lawyers, and, of course, how it is all filtered down to the public through public conversation and, of course, the arts, culture and entertainment as well.”
The case began with a victory for Kody Brown and his four wives in 2013, when Clark Waddoups, a federal judge in Utah, invalidated a portion of the state law that prohibits bigamy. His opinion essentially decriminalized polygamy. Waddoups ruled as unconstitutional a section of the law that prohibits a married person from cohabiting with someone who is not his or her spouse.
In effect, Waddoups legalized polygamy as it is practiced in Utah and other western states primarily by members of fundamentalist spinoffs of the Mormon religion. Such polygamous households typically do not have multiple marriage licenses but treat all relationships between a man and the women with whom he lives as marriages.
Brown and only one of his wives, Robyn, have a marriage license. He is “spiritually married” to the other three women with whom he lives. They are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, which believes polygamy is “a core religious practice,” according to court opinions.
Waddoups ruled the cohabitation section of Utah’s anti-bigamy law violates the free exercise of religion clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver did not rule on the merits of the case in reversing Waddoups’ decision. Instead, a three-judge panel decided the Browns’ lawsuit was moot, because the county attorney involved in their case had declared he would not prosecute them or other families who practice polygamy for religious reasons.
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who represents the Browns, said the case involves the “underlying rights of religious freedom and free speech.”
In a Sept. 12 post at his website, Turley said Waddoups’ decision prevented “the targeting of plural families simply because of their consensual religious practices or relationships.”
Brown and his four wives, whose reality show is on TLC, moved to Nevada nearly six years ago to escape possible prosecution.
The case is Brown v. Buhman.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)