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What The Media Needs To Know About The Utah Polygamy Decision

December 16, 2013 3:39 pm ET by Luke Brinker

The right-wing media is pouncing on a federal judge's ruling striking down parts of Utah's anti-polygamy law, using the decision to assert that legalized polygamy is an inevitable consequence of the slippery slope created by marriage equality for same-sex couples.

On December 13, Judge Clark Waddoups, a U.S. District Court judge in Utah appointed by President George W. Bush, issued a decision finding that Utah's ban on "cohabitation" violated constitutionally protected rights of free exercise of religion and due process. The case, Brown v. Buhman, was brought by Kody Brown, a star of the reality television show "Sister Wives."

Conservative media outlets immediately linked the decision to the push for same-sex marriage rights. FrontPageMag proclaimed that "[t]urning gay marriage into a thing paves the way for legalizing polygamy. As everyone with a brain predicted." "Judge Cites Same-Sex Marriage in Declaring Polygamy Ban Unconstitutional," reported. And even as he acknowledged that the decision didn't vindicate opponents of marriage rights for gay couples, Commentary's Jonathan Tobin declared that "[t]he floodgates have been opened."

In reality, here's what media outlets need to know about Judge Waddoups' ruling:

  • It Has Nothing To Do With Same-Sex Marriage. The issue of same-sex marriage appears exactly zero times in the decision striking down part of Utah's anti-polygamy law. Waddoups makes no mention of the Supreme Court's rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act or California's Proposition 8 or any other judicial decision regarding same-sex marriage in his ruling. Instead, Waddoups cites the Supreme Court's 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling striking down state anti-sodomy laws, citing "its focus on the deeper liberty interests at issue in the home and personal relationships." Even social conservative blogger Rod Dreher admitted that the case had very little to do with the legality of particular marriages.
  • It Doesn't Actually Legalize Polygamous Marriages. Waddoups' decision leaves intact Utah's ban on obtaining multiple marriage licenses, so polygamy remains illegal "in the literal sense." As the libertarian Volokh Conspiracy blog noted, the decision "in no way establishes a constitutional right to plural marriage." Waddoups simply found Utah's prohibition of cohabitation unconstitutional.
  • Cohabitation Has Been Legal In Most Of The U.S. For A Long Time. Though targeted at individuals in plural relationships, Utah's "cohabitation" ban was one of the few remaining in the U.S. Only three states - Mississippi, Florida, and Michigan - still have laws on the books banning cohabitation.

With Brown likely headed toward an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, it's far from clear whether Waddoups' ruling will stand. What should be obvious, though, is that contrary to the right wing's willful distortion of the decision, it's neither the inevitable consequence of same-sex marriage nor the first step toward legalized polygamy.


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