Two of the nation’s leading anti-LGBT groups — the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council — said a decision by a federal judge in Utah last week overturning part of the state’s law banning polygamy was made possible by earlier court rulings supportive of same-sex marriage.
An official with the marriage equality group Freedom to Marry disputed that assertion, saying the Utah ruling was limited to the right of people to choose personal living arrangements unrelated to marriage.
But statements by NOM and FRC linking the Utah ruling to same-sex marriage were reported widely in the media, with cable news outlets inviting FRC President Tony Perkins to appear on news programs to express his views on the issue.
Judge Clark Waddoups of the U.S. District Court of Utah ruled on Dec. 13 that a section of Utah’s anti-polygamy law that prohibits “cohabitation” violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion as well as the Constitution’s due process clause.
Waddoups’ ruling left in place the anti-polygamy law’s provisions prohibiting someone from obtaining two or more valid marriage licenses to marry more than one person.
In a statement released by the National Organization for Marriage, the group’s president, Brian Brown, called Waddoups’ ruling the first step in an effort by polygamists to bring a test case to the Supreme Court to obtain legal recognition of “plural” marriages.
“There’s no doubt that the arguments for same-sex marriage were a template for this case,” Brown said. “People in polygamist, plural marriages are just a short step away from winning official marriage rights. Adult incest practitioners will have similar claims, as will adult siblings and other close relations,” he said.
“This decision is the next step along the path blazed by same-sex marriage advocates who have convinced federal judges to transform the societal norm of marriage as the union of one man and one woman designed primarily for the benefit of any children produced of their union into an institution that recognizes intimate, romantic relationships between consenting adults,” Brown said.
Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry, said Brown’s interpretation of Waddoups’ ruling was incorrect.
“Contrary to yet another predictable breathless rush to misrepresent from NOM and its anti-gay ilk, this decision is no more about marriage than NOM is,” Wolfson told the Blade in an email.
“It’s about cohabitation, that is, whom you may choose to live with,” he said. “As anyone reading the judge’s ruling can see, the decision leaves intact other prohibitions on bigamy, polygamy, and fraud. Instead it’s about choices people make about living together, not marrying.”
Wolfson added, “Do the NOM/FRC crowd really believe that in a free country the government should be dictating to Americans – married or otherwise, religious or otherwise – whom they may even live with?”
The challenge to the Utah polygamy law stems from a lawsuit filed by Kody Brown, the lead figure in the reality television show “Sister Wives,” in which Brown stars with people he identifies as his four wives and 17 children.
Brown and his family are members of the Apostolic Brethren Church, a breakaway sect from the Mormon Church whose members embrace polygamy as part of their religious beliefs. The Mormon Church ended its support for polygamy in the 1890s when Congress required the then territory of Utah to prohibit polygamy as a condition for becoming a state.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley represents the Brown family in connection with their lawsuit. He argued before the court that the provision of the Utah polygamy law prohibiting cohabitation violated the family’s right to privacy and religious freedom.