'Sister Wives': Is Kody Brown a criminal for practicing polygamy with four wives? Here's why US law is against it

Thanks to the rise of several television shows like 'Sister Wives', 'Seeking Sister Wives', etc, the polygamist lifestyle is increasingly gaining popularity, but is it legal though?


                            'Sister Wives': Is Kody Brown a criminal for practicing polygamy with four wives? Here's why US law is against it
Kody Brown with his wives (TLC)
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When TLC first introduced us to the Brown family on 'Sister Wives', everybody was intrigued by the family's polygamist lifestyle. The patriarch of the family, Kody Brown, was shown living in Lehi, Utah, with his four wives — Meri Brown, Janelle Brown, Robyn Brown, and Christine Brown, and their eighteen children! Although the Brown family became celebrities of sorts overnight, it came with its fair share of trouble.

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Just a day after the show's premiere in 2010, Lehi police announced that they were investigating the Brown family for bigamy. A month later, the police department submitted their findings to the Utah County Attorney. This led to a long legal battle, ending with the Supreme Court declaring that they wouldn't be hearing the Browns' appeal, although all charges against the family were dropped.

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The family moved to Nevada for filming the second season of the show and to escape any legal repercussions in Utah. The recent season once again saw the polygamist family make their big move to Flagstaff, Arizona. While we eagerly continue to watch 'Sister Wives' and understand their unique lifestyle, we can't help but wonder if Kody is a criminal for practicing polygamy? If you too found yourself wondering over the same thing, then read on to know all about the polygamy laws in the US, and understand if Kody is breaking the law.

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Meri Brown, Janelle Brown, Kody Brown, Christine Brown and Robyn Brown speak during the 'Sister Wives' panel at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 6, 2010, in Beverly Hills, California (Getty Images)

 

What is Polygamy?

Polygamy is the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time. Polygamy can be classified into two forms — polyandry and polygyny. Polygyny is the practice of having more than one wife or female partner at a time, while polyandry is the practice of having more than one husband or male partner at one time. Polygamy encompasses bigamy too. Bigamy refers to marrying one person while still being legally married to another. All bigamists are essentially polygamists, while not all polygamists are bigamists, as they can have over two partners. 

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Polygamy according to the US Law

Thanks to the rise of several television shows like 'Sister Wives' and 'Seeking Sister Wives', the polygamist lifestyle is increasingly gaining popularity. So, many may be wondering if it is even legal to practice the lifestyle. Polygamy has been a very controversial subject from a legal point of view. Although since the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882, bigamy has been categorized as a federal crime under US law, of late several states are pushing for decriminalizing it. 

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The cast of 'Sister Wives' (TLC)

 

According to the current legal framework, a person can't be married to two different people at the same time, as it would mean that the person has entered into two different marriage contracts. A person is required to have their marriage dissolved either through death, annulment, or divorce before he/ she can legally enter into a new marriage. If a person fails to follow these rules, they can be charged with bigamy. Under current law, polygamy refers to a man who cohabits with and purports to marry more than one wife, is classified as a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

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In 2020, the Utah Senate unanimously voted for a bill to decriminalize polygamy. Currently, Utah is the only state where polygamy is treated as a civil infraction rather than a crime. But many other states have strict legislation against polygamy and co-habitation.

How do the Polygamy laws affect the Brown family?

The Browns are currently residing in Arizona, a state where polygamy isn't legal, unlike Utah which decriminalized it. Flynn Carey, an attorney at Mitchell, Stein, Carey, Chapman in Phoenix, Arizona explained in an interview with Good Housekeeping, how Arizona's polygamy laws might affect the Brown family. The attorney shared that the Brown family could potentially be charged with bigamy, and marrying the spouse of another, both the offenses fall under class 5 felonies. "Class 5 felonies in Arizona are punishable by probation, however, also punishable by a year in jail, or between half a year to two and a half years in prison, and fines," Carey says. 

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Robyn Brown, Meri Brown, Kody Brown, Christine Brown and Janelle Brown from 'Sister Wives' at the Hollywood Theatre at the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino April 14, 2012, in Las Vegas, Nevada (Getty Images)

 

Considering Kody is legally married only to Robyn, it makes the case more complicated. Carey pointed, "While the laws when someone gets legally married to more than one person are fairly clear, it’s more murky if there is only one legal marriage." 

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If Kody had his way he would make polygamy legal across the country. The reality star has already sued the state of Utah for its "unconstitutional" anti-bigamy laws. Although he won the case, it was eventually overturned in an appeal in 2014. But Kody isn't one to sit down and calmly tolerate the laws that are unfair towards polygamy.

In an episode of 'Sister Wives', Kdy revealed that he wanted to run for office to change the laws. "There are tens of thousands of plural families in Utah and other states. We are one of those families. We only wish to live our private lives according to our beliefs. While we understand that this may be a long struggle in court, it has already been a long struggle for my family and other plural families to end the stereotypes and unfair treatment given consensual polygamy," explained Kody in a statement

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'Sister Wives' Season 15 premieres on Sunday, February 14, at 10/9c on TLC.