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May 16, 2006
Case Law Development: Utah Supreme Court Holds Polygamy Ban Constitutional
The Utah Supreme Court today upheld the constitutionality of the ban on polygamous marriages. In upholding the conviction of Rodney Holm for felony bigamy and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, the court concluded that "Holm’s behavior falls squarely within the realm of behavior criminalized by our State’s bigamy statute and that the protections enshrined in the federal constitution, as well as our state constitution, guaranteeing the free exercise of religion and conscience, due process, and freedom of association do not shield Holm’s polygamous practices from state prosecution." The Chief Justice provides a vigorous dissent on all issues.
While the opinion is, of course, important for its constitutional law analysis, Family Law Profs will also want to examine the statutory construction debate that precedes that analysis. Members of the court debated the scope of the term "purports to marry" in the bigamy statute. The defendant had argued that the term must be read narrowly to extend only to those situations in which one purports to create a legal marriage by obtaining a marriage license and claiming the legal benefits of marriage. The majority found no valid reason to accept such a limiting interpretation.
As to the constitutional claims, the court held that "the Utah Constitution offers no protection to polygamous behavior and, in fact, shows antipathy towards it by expressly prohibiting such behavior." Reviewing the history of the "irrevocable ordinance" banning polygamy in the constitution, the majority reaffirmed state court precedent regarding the meaning of the amendment. Likewise, under the US Constitution, the court distinguished the case from Lawrence v. Texas, noting that "this case implicates the public institution of marriage, an institution the law protects, and also involves a minor. In other words, this case presents the exact conduct identified by the Supreme Court in Lawrence as outside the scope
of its holding." In addressing each of the federal constitutional claims, the court provides a thorough review of the precedent on the issue. The opinion would be well worth careful reading for the majority opinion alone.
The dissention opinion of Chief Justice Christine Durham, however, adds even more significance to the case -- drawing the lines for future appeals to the US Supreme Court on the issue. Chief Justice Durham concluded that applying the bigamy law to marriages solemnized only in religious ceremonies, without obtaining marriage license, "oversteps lines protecting the free exercise of religion and the privacy of intimate, personal relationships between consenting adults."
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