Utah’s anti-polygamy law was ruled unconstitutional this month when a federal district court judge in Utah struck down the state’s prohibition of “cohabitation,” perhaps opening the door for the eventual legalization of polygamous marriage. The case continues the recent trend, in courts and in the nation as a whole, toward changing the way we think about marriage and the regulation of personal relationships by the government.
The challenge to the Utah statute was brought by a Utah man (and reality television star) who lives with his four wives and 17 children. The court found that, under the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion, the statute’s language banning “cohabitation” is unconstitutional. The state can still prohibit actual polygamy by not allowing anyone to have more than one valid marriage license. However, the decision may pave the way for the legalization of polygamy sooner rather than later.
Another Significant Change to Domestic Relations Law
The decision is the latest in a line of cases, from Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 through US v. Windsor earlier this year, in which the federal courts have expanded the right to privacy and limited the government’s ability to regulate private sexual behavior. The Utah court specifically cited Lawrence, which struck down anti-sodomy laws in Texas. In that case, the majority opinion stated that the Constitution protects people from “unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places” and “an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression and certain intimate conduct.”
The dissent in Lawrence famously argued that the decision would inevitably lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage, polygamy, and other non-traditional familial arrangements and sexual practices. If marriage is nothing more than a matter of choice by consenting parties, reasoned the dissent, then there is no basis for limiting it to opposite-sex couples or to just two people.
In Windsor, the Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, essentially requiring the federal government and state governments to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Once again, critics predicted a “slippery slope” in which anti-polygamy laws would no longer stand up to constitutional scrutiny. If decisions about who can get married belong exclusively to the individuals involved, rather than to the community or government, then any regulation of those consensual decisions becomes intrusive.
The plaintiffs’ attorney in the Utah case, however, disagreed with the dissenting opinions in Lawrence and Windsor. He argued that those cases and the Utah decision ultimately come down to privacy, and to each person’s “right to be left alone as consenting adults.” People should be able to do whatever they want in their own homes, as long as they do not harm others. The government, the attorney argued, should not interfere with what its citizens do behind closed doors.
What to Do if You Want to Enter into a Non-traditional Marriage
Since the Utah decision relied on federal law, it would be equally applicable in California and other states. Continue reading →