The Utah State Legislature passed a bill last week that would modify the criminal code for bigamy — narrowing the definition of what criminal bigamy entails while imposing harsher penalties for violations.
The measure is believed to be in response to an ongoing legal battle between the state and the Brown family of polygamists, who star in the reality TV show Sister Wives.
The family sued Utah in 2011 on the grounds that its anti-bigamy law was unconstitutional. They won the case in district court in 2013, but an appeals court overturned the ruling in 2016, arguing the Browns did not have legal standing for the lawsuit since they were never prosecuted as bigamists. The family moved to Nevada in 2010 after Sister Wives premiered, in order to avoid prosecution.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the previous law stated that bigamy took place if someone legally married to one person co-habitated or was “spiritually married” to another; the proposed law defines bigamy as both co-habitating and “purporting” to be married to a person other than their legal spouse.
The bill, HB99, will also impose harsher penalties on accused bigamists in cases where there is also domestic or sexual abuse, fraud, or trafficking, elevating the offense from a third-degree to a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Kody Brown, the star of Sister Wives who is spiritually married to three women and legally married to another, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the proposed new law “classifies all polygamists as second-class citizens.”
“My concern is all this is going to do is drive the good polygamous people who don’t have those abuses more into hiding, and it’s going to make the people who do have those abuses just be able to do them even more,” said Meri Brown, one of his wives, while adding that she does not think it will reduce the number of people living in plural marriages.
Polygamy was practiced widely and openly among early Mormons, but the practice was outlawed in the state of Utah and banned by the church in 1890 as a condition of Utah being granted statehood.