A family of reality TV polygamists can't challenge a Utah law banning polygamy because they weren't being prosecuted or penalized under the law, a federal court ruled.
The case centers around Kody Brown and his four wives, stars of TLC's "Sister Wives." Brown is legally married to one of his wives, Meri, and "spiritually married" to his three other wives. Together, Brown and his spouses have 18 children.
They mounted a legal challenge to Utah's anti-bigamy law, which prohibits polygamy, and earned a short-lived victory when U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups struck down part of the law, reasoning that it violates the family's constitutional rights, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Browns' lawyer had argued that the law criminalizes relationships among consenting adults.
But on April 11, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver overturned Waddoups' decision, ruling that the Brown family had no legal standing to challenge the Utah bigamy law because they weren't being prosecuted under that law.
As a story in Reason notes, it's a technicality in a case about religious expression and freedom of association, not government recognition of marriage. The Utah law specifically bans married people from living with other partners and proclaiming themselves to be in a polygamous marriage.
“Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction,” the court wrote, per Religion News Service. “They lack power to decide issues – however important or fiercely contested – that are detached from a live dispute between the parties.”
The Browns and their attorneys say they also see the case in terms of free speech and religious rights, and released a statement saying they'll continue their legal battle. The statement, released on attorney Jonathan Turley's blog, says:
"We respectfully disagree with the panel on its interpretation of the governing law and we will appeal the decision. ... The Brown family is obviously disappointed in the ruling but remains committed to this fight for the protections of religion, speech, and privacy in Utah."
Sister Wives debuted in 2010 on TLC, formerly named The Learning Channel. It has aired for six seasons since then, and remains one of the channel's strongest-performing programs.