SALT LAKE CITY – A landmark ruling from a federal judge in Utah striking down key parts of the state's polygamy laws handed a legal victory to polygamist families across the state — but the battle might not be over.
U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups said in the decision handed down Friday that a provision in Utah's bigamy law forbidding cohabitation with another person violated the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedom of religion.
The ruling was cheered by Kody Brown and his four wives, who star in the hit TLC cable TV reality show "Sister Wives," and other fundamentalist Mormons who believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The Brown family filed their lawsuit in July 2011 and fled Utah for Las Vegas last year under the threat of prosecution.
Here are five key things to know about the ruling:
DOES THIS MAKE POLYGAMY LEGAL IN UTAH?
The ruling decriminalizes polygamy, but bigamy — holding marriage licenses with multiple partners — is still illegal, said Jonathan Turley, the Browns' Washington, D.C.-based attorney. Utah's law was considered stricter than the laws in 49 other states because of the cohabitation clause. If the ruling stands, Utah's law would be identical to most other states that prohibit people from having multiple marriage licenses. In most polygamous families in Utah, the man is legally married to one woman but only "spiritually married" to the others.
The Utah Attorney General's Office could appeal the ruling. Spokesman Paul Murphy said the office plans to thoroughly review it before making a decision, which could take several weeks. The office is being run by an interim attorney general, and a replacement has not yet been selected. "The new attorney general would want to weigh in on this decision," Murphy said. Gov. Gary Herbert says he's "always a little concerned" when the courts make public policy changes, and said his legal counsel would determine the ramifications of the decision. Turley said he's prepared to defend the decision on appeal.
HOW DO POLYGAMISTS FEEL ABOUT THE RULING?
Most of them are thrilled, saying polygamous families in Utah have lived under the threat of arrest for decades and can now come out from the shadows. "Now that we're no longer felons, that's a huge relief," said Anne Wilde of Salt Lake City, co-founder of the polygamy advocacy group Principle Voices. "This decision will hopefully take away the stigma of living a principle that's a strongly held religious belief." There are an estimated 38,000 fundamentalist Mormons who practice or believe in polygamy, most living in Utah and other Western states, said Wilde, who was a plural wife for 33 years until her husband died. In a statement, the Browns said they hope the decision will help others "come to respect our own choices as part of this wonderful country of different faiths and beliefs."
WHAT DO FORMER POLYGAMISTS THINK?
At least one of them, author Kristyn Decker, believes the ruling gives more justification for leaders and members of fundamentalist Mormon groups to continue promoting a lifestyle built on coercion and fear. In 2002, after five decades, Decker left the Apostolic United Brethren, the church to which the Browns belong. "Everyone who believes in polygamy will say, 'See? We're right,'" said Decker, who has written a book about her experience. "I'm concerned that it's just going to justify more of the same that has gone on for years and years unchecked."
DOES THE RULING IMPACT MAINSTRREAM MORMONS?
Not likely. The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came out after the ruling to reiterate that it abandoned polygamy in 1890 and that it strictly prohibits the practice today for its 15 million members worldwide. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of the Mormon church but has no place in modern Mormonism, church officials said in a statement. Practicing polygamists, including Warren Jeffs' sect on the Utah-Arizona border, are offshoots of mainstream Mormonism.