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'Sister Wives' family returns to Utah to rally polygamists against bigamy bill

Published February 12, 2017 10:40 am

Activism • Opposition includes reality TV stars whose lawsuit prompted legislation.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Polygamists and their children marched to the Capitol on Friday to show that they are families, and to ask lawmakers not to advance a bill that would keep polygamy a felony in Utah.

Among those in attendance were stars from the television reality show "Sister Wives," whose lawsuit spurred the Utah Legislature to change the definition of bigamy in Utah. It was the first time since 2012 that the stars have made a public appearance in Utah, where they said they feared prosecution.

The show is about a husband, Kody Brown, his plural wives — Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn — and their children.



Kody Brown on Friday said keeping polygamy a crime makes polygamous families afraid to call ambulances or social services that can help them.

"Stop prosecuting consenting adults," he said.

"I want my right to live my life as a consenting adult," said Meri Brown.

A film crew followed the Browns on Friday as they arrived at City Creek Park before leading about 100 people — polygamists, their children and supporters — up State Street to the Capitol.

There, the crowd grew to about 200, though some people opposed to polygamy were sprinkled among the polygamists; a film crew for "Escaping Polygamy," a reality show about people fleeing abuse in polygamous sects, was on hand. Supporters of polygamy chanted, "Families, not felons" until speakers addressed them.

Christine Brown was one of the people who went to a podium on the Capitol's south steps and spoke into a microphone.

She was raised in a loving family, she said, but one that taught the children to be afraid of the outside world for fear that police would enter the home and take away the men and children. She said children being abused in polygamous homes are still afraid.

"We need to change these laws to eliminate that fear," Christine Brown said.

Those who opposed polygamy and want legislators to pass a new bill addressing it talked about children and abuses Friday, too.

Pam Jenson, who has worked with people who have left polygamous families, said polygamy should remain a felony because it is harmful to women and children — an assertion the Utah attorney general's office made in opposing the Browns' lawsuit. She said HB99 will provide a "safe harbor" for people leaving such households.

"There's still religious coercion to stay" in polygamy, Jenson said.

HB99 passed a House of Representatives committee last week and is likely to be debated this week by the full body. The bill would amend the definition of bigamy to say someone is guilty if he or she "purports" to marry two or more people and cohabits with them. Current state law requires one or the other. Polygamy would remain a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, but those penalties can increase if polygamy is prosecuted in conjunction with violent crimes, human smuggling or fraud.

The bill also would permit amnesty for people leaving abusive polygamous relationships, though polygamists say it would create witnesses against others who remain in the plural marriage.

Prosecutors across the state have declined to pursue cases unless there's underage marriage, abuse or fraud in the households. Utah's polygamists would like polygamy to be decriminalized, but first they want to defeat HB99.

The first season of "Sister Wives" showed the family living in Lehi, but when police there began an investigation, the Browns moved to the Las Vegas area.

The family later sued and persuaded a federal judge to strike down a section of Utah's bigamy statute that deals with polygamy. A higher court overturned that ruling because the Browns were never prosecuted for bigamy, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The federal judge's ruling that says Utah's bigamy statute is unconstitutional has spurred the Legislature to try to amend the law.

The Browns are members of the Bluffdale-based Apostolic United Brethren. There also were polygamists at the rally from the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group; Rockland Ranch in southeastern Utah; the Righteous Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in southwestern Utah; the polygamous church in Centennial Park, Ariz.; and some who claim no church affiliation.

Friday's rally was filled with people in Generation X and younger, but there were few people from the baby boomer generation or older.

Kody Brown said polygamous leaders who commit crimes, such as Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas, get their power through the criminalization of polygamy.

The Browns are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, and Kody Brown wished leaders of that church had attended Friday's rally.

"I was ashamed my leaders weren't there," he said after the rally. "You'd think they'd be more advocates.

"You have to understand, though, their fathers were all jailed and taken away for being polygamists."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle —

Memorial vigil • If you go:

P A vigil for the 2007 Trolley Square shootings will be 6 p.m. Sunday at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1070 Foothill Drive, in Salt Lake City. It will feature speakers who survived the attack or who lost family or friends there. There also will be a performance of "Six Minutes," a song about the shootings.

 

 

 

 

 

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