Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Utah Supreme Court Upholds Polygamy Ban

Yesterday, in State of Utah v. Holm (UT Sup. Ct., May 16, 2006), Utah's Supreme Court yesterday upheld the constitutionality of the state's bigamy statute which provides that "[a] person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person." Utah Code Ann. § 76-7-101. The majority held that the state's statute bars polygamous marriages that are solemnized through religious ceremonies even when no state marriage license has been sought.

The court rejected defendant's claim that outlawing polygamous marriage violates his free exercise rights under Art. I, Sec. 4 of Utah's constitution. In so holding, the majority focused on the explicit ban on polygamy placed in Utah's constitution (Art. III, Sec. 1) as a condition of statehood, as required by the 1894 federal Utah Enabling Act. The majority also rejected the contention that criminalizing religiously motivated plural marriage violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Finally the court rejected the defendant's claim that the U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas protects polygamous relationships as a fundamental liberty interest.

The case involved the conviction of FLDS member Rodney Holm, who had been a police officer in Hilldale, Utah. Charges were filed after he married a 16-year old third wife (the sister of his first wife), and fathered her two children.

An interesting dissent by Chief Justice Durham takes the position that Utah's polygamy ban only applies to licensed marriages, and not to a mere religious union where there has been no attempt to obtain state recognition of marital status or the legal benefits of marriage. She also held that imposing criminal penalties on Holm’s religiously motivated entry into a religious union violates the state constitution's provisions protecting religious freedom. Finally she argued that if Holm's polygamous relationship had been with an adult instead of a minor, it would be protected under the U.S. Supreme Court's Lawrence v. Texas holding.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports on the case in two news articles. 1, 2 .