Utah polygamists celebrate, but will rulings help them?
Bigamy • Impact on families and pending "Sister Wives" lawsuit is unclear.
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Polygamists and their supporters celebrated Wednesday, saying they see implications for their cause in the Supreme Court's ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act.

Just hours after the court ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional, Joe Darger said he and his family were pleased. Darger, who with his three wives detailed their life in the book "Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage," said the ruling should help remedy polygamists' treatment as "second-class citizens."

"The government," he said, "can't single out a single class of people for favorable or unfavorable treatment."

Darger added that he believes the decision also will influence the high-profile Brown case, which is pending in Utah before federal Judge Clark Waddoups. In that case, the polygamous Brown family — which is well known from the TV show "Sister Wives" — is suing to strike down the statute that makes bigamy a third-degree felony.

Darger speculated that Waddoups was waiting for the Supreme Court's ruling to make a decision in the case. In light of DOMA's demise, Darger said, he expects a favorable ruling for the Browns and practitioners of plural marriage.

"This gives Waddoups all the ammunition he needs," Darger added.

Lawyers from the Utah attorney general's office, which is defending the state against the Browns, did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. Assistant Attorney General Jerrold Jensen argued in a January hearing that polygamy should remain a criminal offense because practitioners use the word "marriage" to describe their relationships. Jensen also said polygamy is replete with examples of abuse and that every state has laws making it illegal.

Jonathan Turley, the Washington ,D.C.-based lawyer representing the Browns, said the DOMA ruling may not have significant applicability in the case, though he pointed out Justice Anthony Kennedy emphasized the "limited right of the federal government in treating couples differently once they have been recognized as married by a state."

Attorney Ken Driggs, who has studied and written about polygamy, further explained that there are two major issues facing polygamists: decriminalization of their lifestyle and legal recognition of their marriages. He said most practicing polygamists simply want decriminalization.

According to Turley, Wednesday's decisions will have limited impact on decriminalization. Turley explained that the issue surrounding the DOMA and Proposition 8 rulings was the legal recognition of certain kinds of relationships, not criminalization.

"Our case is about the criminalization of relationships, rather than the recognition," Turley added. "What does help us is the reaffirmation of the court that these relationships are protected by due process."

Perhaps the most significant development in regards to polygamy, Turley explained, was the court's shift away from morality as a justification of law.

"Only Justice [Antonin] Scalia and Justice [Clarence] Thomas," he said, "continued to argue in favor of morality legislation."

Driggs said that, while the rulings may be beneficial, "plural marriage is a big step beyond anything in these opinions."

jdalrymple@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jimmycii