Cornerstone, Drew

Is Polygamy Inherently Abusive?

Written by Drew 
People have been asking why polygamy is illegal in Utah and why the government cares if consenting adults want to build a family together.  To be honest, unless you’re a mainstream Mormon living in Utah, there is no compelling answer but I’ll offer the best explanation I can by explaining a little bit of history surrounding Utah polygamy laws.
The original lawsuit that made polygamy “illegal” with the support of the U.S. constitution was decided in 1878: Reynolds vs. the United States.   TheReynolds court essentially ruled that polygamy was inherently abusive but it never bothered to (1) receive any evidence to show that polygamy was abusive or (2) review any allegations that polygamy was inherently abusive.  Based on Judeo-Christian values, the court essentially found that it was so and voila – judicial magic – states across America were allowed to make polygamy illegal under the U.S. Constitution because polygamy is inherently abusive.  It was labeled as a “twin relic of barbarism” so we got to wear the badge of being barbaric to boot.  Sadly, that isn’t a sarcastic commentary – that’s pretty much how it went down.
The tradition has continued in Utah.  When Kody Brown’s family (from TLC’s Sister Wives) sued the state of Utah, the state of Utah failed to bring any evidence showing that polygamy was inherently harmful when they argued the case on summary judgment.  I watched the hearing live.  I was shocked.  When asked if the state had any evidence showing polygamy was inherently harmful, the attorney representing the State of Utah said that he’d be happy to get some and started spouting off about abuses in the FLDS community.  Polygamists in the audience metaphorically rolled their eyes in frustration.  The FLDS community is the single most radical brand of fundamentalism and most fundamentalists are opposed to FLDS religious practices because … well, we fundamentalists find FLDS practices abusive.  Think of it like this: saying FLDS fundamentalists represent polygamy in general is like branding all Muslims as members of Al-Qaedaj or branding all teen African American males as violent gang members.  It’s a bigoted, broad sweeping brush that is inherently unfair.  In the end, the State of Utah brought zero evidence showing polygamy was inherently abusive and yet, that is implicitly the foundation the law hangs upon.  The law was ultimately struck down as unconstitutional on several grounds (7 were addressed by the court as I recall) and then that ruling was reversed on the grounds that Kody was never really harmed by the law so he lacked “standing” to appear in the court in the first place.  
When HB099 was presented to the Utah legislature, the bill’s sponsor had one person testify of her abuses in polygamist groups.  Turns out, she fabricated her testimony.  Victim’s advocacy group representatives testified that laws criminalizing polygamy were actually encouraging abuses by creating a culture of underground polygamy where victims were afraid to testify against abusers for fear of legal retribution and blackmail.  Compromises to the bill were offered but the sponsor noted that his constituent (whom was confirmed to be the LDS Church in various other meetings) insisted that polygamy remain a felony or he needed to withdraw the bill.  Shortly thereafter, he withdrew the bill when a reduction in punishment was suggested unless abuse was present when charges were brought.  Ten minutes before the Senate session was finished, Utah’s attorney general showed up to personally advocate for the bill.  Despite the fact that my law firm personally sent a letter to each representative and senator explaining that the law was unconstitutional on several grounds and despite the fact that my firm personally sent each of them a proposed bill that corrected each of those unconstitutional laws while still addressing anti-polygamy concerns, the bill passed by a single, changed vote.  Did I mention that the bill’s sponsor went on public record on a number of occasions saying that he wanted polygamists to know that they were “apostates” and that he was offended that we were “hijacking his religion?”  Really.  I’m not kidding.  He said this to newspaper reporters on multiple occasions.  With his primary constituent being the LDS Church, doesn’t this sound just a tad bit like religious persecution?
In short, knowing the law is unconstitutional and without any substantive evidence that polygamy is inherently abusive, the State of Utah continues to treat polygamists as criminals.  Moreover, HB099 enhanced the penalty from 5-10 years in prison and makes plural wives subject to imprisonment as well.  You be the judge: should Angela have Lenny taken from her and raised by the state while she spends 5-10 years in prison for living her religion? for choosing an alternative lifestyle?  If you don’t think so, you just may live outside of the State of Utah!  Several Utahns have justified the law by pointing out cases of abuse within polygamist families but they fail to present any evidence that the percentage of abuses in polygamist communities are any higher than other groups of people.  For that matter, they don’t even know how many polygamists there are because many of them remain in hiding out of fear of the law!  But somehow, some instances of abuse prove that all of us are inherently abusive.  I wonder how the LDS Church would react if the courts found Mormonism felonious because a larger percentage of child abuse in Utah came from LDS families rather than from, say, the Amish.  Yes, I’m making up that “statistic” but I’m making it for a point.  The logic is unjustifiable and it wouldn’t fly if it was used against any other group of people in this country.  
Detractors may notice that Canada has anti-polygamy laws and a reviewing court there determined that polygamy was inherently abusive after investigating the matter thoroughly.  I respond to that in two different ways: (1) all of the findings of that court and all of the evidence I saw presented in that case dealt with the FLDS and (2) none of the findings of that court bothered to look at Christian polygamy, Muslim polygamy, asian non-faith-based polygamy, African polygamy, or any other numbers of polygamist lifestyles across the globe.  The Canada court focused on the most radical group of Mormon polygamists who have a long history of abuse and determined that now, all polygamists, regardless of their stripes, are abusive.  If a court found that all Muslims were terrorists because some Muslims belonged to Al-Qaeada, the media would be in an uproar fighting for their civil rights.  In Canada or Utah, these things are glossed over as normal.  
Legislators claim they are enacting these laws to protect women and children from abuse.  That’s pretty rhetoric.  It sounds warm and fluffy to my ears.  But there are three problems with this claim.  One: there has never been a time when evidence was collected and argued to determine whether or not polygamy is inherently abusive.  Two: there are already plenty of laws addressing most every abusive situation imaginable.  Three: the State of Utah does not have a track history of prosecuting abusers.  It has a track history of prosecuting people who are vocal about the lifestyle, not people who are known to be abusive.  I personally know of recent allegations of abuse brought against a polygamist leader that were passed on to the governor by one of the leader’s followers.  My friend and contact informs me that the governor’s response to requests for an investigation were answered with “we already passed HB099.”  In other words: “we don’t really care about that.”  During congressional hearings, various polygamists were mentioned by name as known and notorious abusers and yet, they haven’t been prosecuted.  Prosecutions even among the FLDS are few and far between.  So, when I hear the law is to protect women and children from abuse, I raise my eyebrows with a generous dose of skepticism.  Tell me again about that swampland you have for sale … 
I, along with many other fundamentalists, would like to call upon the State of Utah to make a point to prosecute child abusers instead of people trying to live their religion.  If a man molests his children, by all means, throw him in jail.  If he beats his children, by all means, put him in jail (and/or rehabilitate him if circumstances warrant it).  If a man stops his daughters from getting an education or driver’s license, by all means fine him and force him to change his ways or face worse punishments.  But if a man loves more than one woman and all of their children regardless of which mother they came from and all of those adults live that way consensually because of their religious convictions – leave them alone!
There you have it. Polygamy Bigotry 101: How to Oppress Marginalized Religious Groups in Utah
A sidenote on Reynolds
Some scholars have noted that this case also brought about state regulated marriages as well – that is, before Reynolds, people went to a church to get married and the government had nothing to do with it.  This is why many Mormon fundamentalists don’t care about legal marriages.  They feel their marriages are sanctioned by God so they don’t look for or care about state sanctioned marriages (as a whole).  Most fundamentalists don’t even want polygamy to be legal – they just want it decriminalized.
I have a friend who was investigating Mormon fundamentalism.  In a divorce action, she was ordered NOT to teach her children any of her religious beliefs and was affirmatively enjoined to teach them about Santa Clause.  I fought a case where a guardian ad litem requested supervised visitation on the basis that my client was a polygamist despite there being any allegation of abuse.  I know of another divorce where the mother’s attorney argued that the father should only have supervised visitation because he lived in a community of polygamists and since there were several felons in his neighborhood, it was unsafe for the children to visit.  I could probably list a couple dozen similar stories.
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20 thoughts on “Is Polygamy Inherently Abusive?

  1. The Brown family don’t want the government interfering with their lifestyle but were more then happy to accept welfare/food stamps and declare bankruptcy 3 times. The bankruptcy’s are public record and Christine was using food stamps in the first episode. I have no problem with polygamy as long as everyone is consenting and you can pay for a large family on your own.

    1. I don’t know details about the Brown’s family so I cannot comment to that. I do know that most polygamists teach that we shouldn’t use government assistance unless circumstances disallow other options. Charity should come from churches, not the government. That said, the portion of tax dollars going to polygamists cannot begin to remotely compare to tax dollars going to other religious or ethnic groups and the percentage of polygamists on government assistance is unlikely much different from any other group either. Personally, I’d love to see the government step out of our lives in MANY aspects besides just threatening to throw us in jail but that isn’t reality. Plenty commentators have shown the consistent and terrible results from government over regulation and yet, everyone is clamoring for more regulations against whatever group of people they don’t like. I’m grateful the current administration is removing 22 regulations for every regulation they are enacting. I’d love to see that trend continue for years to come.

      1. Just curious why you came up with a back “story” to tell people, Aunt and live-in nanny. The show tells the world your relationships. What’s the point in lying when everybody knows the truth? Your neighbors will find out the truth anyway. The deceit only puts additional negative stigmas on polygamy. It also tarnishes your reputation as an attorney. Further, to teach your children that lying is fine when you know, as an attorney, that there is no chance your wives will go to jail seems ridiculous. See Brown v Buhman. Is this just an attempt to add additional drama to the show? Everybody watching, including your neighbors and the Utah County Attorneys Office, knows everything. Just some pointless lying you now have to try and explain away.

        1. Hi Kirby, thanks for writing. These questions are answered within the blog if you are still curious.

          This post might be especially helpful:

          You may also find this interview helpful:

          I’ll let Drew reply to your comment “you know, as an attorney, that there is no chance your wives will go to jail seems ridiculous.”

        2. If there is “no chance” for plural wives to go to jail, why did the Utah legislature revise the law to allow for the possibility? You can argue that the purpose was to correct the unconstitutionality of the bill but they left several other constitutional issues alive and well in the bill knowing that there were problems. So what does that mean? It means that they intend to use the law for some reason. Is that reason to prosecute families that embarrass the state? families that are abusive? or no one – they only want to suppress this minority? I’ll let someone else take the risk of finding out the answer to that question.

          As to the back story when we’re going on tv, that has been answered earlier in this thread.

  2. If you are not legally married to more thane wife, how can you be charged with doing something illegal? Can you really be put in jail?

    1. Hi Michele, thanks for asking! Utah has a unique “cohabitation” law where you can’t be legally married to one wife and live with others as wives also. If you lived with three women without being legally married to one of them, you would be fine until you were considered “married” by the state through cohabitation laws. Included in this, you cannot be legally married to one woman and “purport” to be married to others at the same time. So on some level it is a free speech issue. You can live your religion, but you can’t “purport” or “say” you do.

      1. Additionally, Utah can use common law marriage to trigger the bigamy clause so even staying unmarried doesn’t protect polygamists – it just makes it more expensive to prosecute.

  3. Hi! I have been watching the show and found your blog. I am married with kids, not religious, but feel that as long as all adults are consenting and children are loved, I see no problem with your beliefs and lifestyle! I give you a lot of credit for opening up your home & lives to viewers- I’m sure that wasn’t easy. Not to mention with social media now, it’s so easy to pass public judgment under the guise of “your opinion,” with little regard for anyone’s feelings.

    Anyway, in learning about plural marriages I was wondering- if the 2nd and 3rd marriages are not recognized by the State, isn’t it hard that Auralee and Angela have no legal rights when it comes to their “husband”? If its too personal to share I totally understand, but for instance how do you, Drew, ensure that all of your wives and kids are taken care of now and if something were to happen to you?

    1. Thank you for your understanding, Maggie. I’ll address this, too, if you don’t mind. I don’t believe in State sanctioned marriages altogether… not for plural wives and not for a single wife. I just don’t think the State has any business in marriage whatsoever and to have to get a license to be married is just another form of control and plunder. God gave so much freely to us… food, shelter, raiment, and love. The government has made a commodity of all these things. We need to buy a deer tag to hunt and collect skins. We have to have a permit to cut down lumber. And we need the State to sanction our union…? Who decided the government owns these things that God has freely given? So it is not an issue for me to have any legal rights to Drew through a marriage license. I just don’t want to live under the threat of being arrested and torn apart from my son and family.

    2. Estate planning issues are tricky for polygamists. Providing for them in case of death can be done with multiple insurance policies, trusts, and various other estate planning documents but it can be quite messy depending on circumstances. I’m sorry if that seems like an overly simplistic answer but I’ve literally given seminars that were well over an hour in length to answer these questions for polygamist families trying to wrap their brains around the best way to provide equal benefits for their extra-legal and legal wives.

  4. This article lays out well so many of the frustrations from within polygamy. As someone coming from a long line of polygamy I can say there is an enormous amount of beauty, and an enormous amount of abuse when there is corrupt male-dominated “unrighteous dominion” (aka “follow your priesthood head/leader/prophet no matter what”) and kept secret-safe because of fear of persecution and prosecution. It creates the perfect hideout for the dross of society in a place where opportunities to victimize abound. I don’t think those within polygamy nor the legislators have benefited from this cycle of prosecution-underground-abuse. Those without want the abuse to stop. Those within are wanting safety. But what can those within do against this kind of bigotry? If you cry out from within polygamy you are given a target shirt to wear. For example, as Drew mentioned, recently several have come forward and hundreds have made a stand about allegations of one person that has not been addressed within their people, risking their own standing, their own family relations, and getting their own target shirt, and even after being promised an investigation by the state, what they got was legislation that is going to increase the secret-safe environment of abuse. Until bigotry can be overruled by fair legislation, the abuses within polygamy cannot begin to come forward fairly. I have a hundred years in my family that demonstrate that. They say legislation is really to protect women and children. But it has actually created untold suffering to women and children who can find no voice without losing their children, their husbands, their rights, their religion, what little they have. The message from the legislation is this: We want to create an environment where polygamists can feel safe leaving. That reasoning is fundamentally flawed, for those who don’t wish to leave polygamy, it puts pressure on them by threatening their families. Who would bring abuses forward under that condition? And then, when people do leave the religion, all it does is leave those left to the wolves who won’t come out because their prosecution would be just.

    1. Thank you. This was strongly testified to in Utah legislative sessions but politics became more important than pragmatism. Clearly, the state of Utah cares more about appeasing constituents than it does in protecting victims. A victims advocacy group testified about how the law harms abused women and children but their testimony was ignored when political trickery was used to pass the revised polygamy bill (that didn’t address these problems) last minute anyway.

  5. I’d like to comment a little more on why polygamy likely was made illegal and deemed abusive. In 1878 how much choice did women have in who they married? If a woman has little choice or is living during a time when she’s easily pressured by family I can see it being a very abusive practice. I’m not at all a polygamist but I do think people should be able to marry whomever they want, including consenting already married adults. I’m a supporter of gay marriage, plural marriage, whatever marriage as long as it involves consenting adults.

    1. Thank you Krystal. I love how you point to history. Many people look at this issue without any regard to history and it makes it confusing to them.

    1. Please see our FAQ page. I took great pains to try to be diplomatic while not too sharp in my response there. ;^) And … no, we don’t.

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