TLC’s new reality show, “Sister Wives,” may soon get very real indeed. The show, featuring a fundamentalist Mormon family in Lehi, Utah, premiered on Sunday, September 26. The cast of characters includes Kody Brown, his four wives, and their sixteen children. The Browns decided to “go public” in order to gain acceptance and understanding of their lifestyle. 

And you really can’t go much more public than they did. Not surprisingly, considering our nation’s recent obsession with polygamy and its ongoing love affair with reality television, the show was one of the highest-rated premieres in the network’s history. However, this media attention comes at a price: the family is now under investigation for the crime of bigamy.

Although bigamy is illegal in every state in the U.S., some states face more enforcement problems than others. The Utah Constitution actually explicitly forbids polygamy; however, the state’s Attorney General’s office has been embroiled for years in an ongoing struggle to combat the crimes associated with polygamist communities.

Under the Utah Criminal Code, a suspect is guilty of bigamy if, “knowing he has a husband or if or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.” So even though Kody is legally married to only his first wife, Meri, his cohabitation with Janelle, Christine, and Robyn constitutes bigamy.

Bigamy is a third-degree felony in Utah. The possible penalties include up to five years in prison and up to $50,000 in fines. Prosecutions for bigamy are rare, but not unheard of, especially in high profile cases. Particularly relevant is Tom Green‘s 2001 conviction for bigamy after making the rounds on TV talk shows to discuss and defend his polygamous lifestyle.

Assembly PointSuffice it to say, the Utah Attorney General’s office is in a sticky situation. If it ignores the Browns’ flagrant disregard of the law in such a public forum, it might encourage other families and communities to engage in polygamy openly. On the other hand, in prosecuting the Browns, it runs the risk of engendering national sympathy for the plight of the family, which could encourage the practice of polygamy just as much as ignoring the criminal activity. And either way, the situation will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire in the ongoing debate over the criminalization of polygamy.

The Browns keep saying that doing the show was “worth the risk.” But I think that the Browns had a bigger agenda than that. Rather than pressing on in spite of the risks, this investigation and possible prosecution might be exactly the outcome they intended from the beginning.

Emily Larish

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