What Happened with Polygamy Law in Utah?

The decision by a Utah court yesterday regarding polygamy law only finalized a decision the court had made in December 2013, officially closing the case so the state can appeal to the Tenth Circuit.

A key point to remember: Polygamy is not now legal in Utah. One way to look at it is that Utah’s laws against the practice make it illegal to have more than one spouse at the same time. How would we know the law has been broken? Utah’s statute answers this by defining bigamy as “when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.”

It’s the second part, regarding cohabitation, the court took issue with. Among other things, the court felt the state selectively prosecuted those who were open about being in polygamous relationships but not adulterers, even though the conduct is arguably the same. The judge also suggested there was some targeting of people who claim religious reasons for practicing polygamy (although it’s hard to think of any secular polygamists drawing attention to themselves in Utah).

A last note: There’s some real irony in the federal courts faulting Utah for its polygamy and same-sex marriage laws since guaranteeing only monogamous husband-wife marriage was probably the most important condition on Utah’s entry into the Union.

— William C. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation.

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