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'Sister Wives' Moving To Flagstaff — So What Are Arizona’s Polygamy Laws, Anyway?

The family at the heart of the TLC reality show "Sister Wives" is moving to Flagstaff.

The show follows Kody Brown and his four wives who openly practice polygamy even though it’s not legal in the US. The family has been at the center of much of the conversation around polygamy laws.

They moved from Utah to Nevada in 2010, following a bigamy investigation on their family. In 2013, the Browns filed a lawsuit saying that Utah’s bigamy laws were unconstitutional and they won, until the decision was overturned by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Show’s Lauren Gilger spoke with Sarah Ventre about the polygamy laws in Arizona following the announcement that the family is moving to the state.

GILGER: So, let’s clear this up — polygamy is not legal in this country. Is it different in Arizona than anywhere else?

VENTRE: Yes and no. Polygamy is illegal all over the country, including in Arizona. It’s actually specifically mentioned in the Arizona Constitution which says, “Polygamous or plural marriages, or polygamous co-habitation, are forever prohibited within this state.” This means it’s illegal to be married to more than one person.

I talked about this with Claudia Work — she’s an attorney in Phoenix. She specializes in family law and unmarried co-habitation.

“Under the state of Arizona and most states in the United States, there’s something more than just the exchanging of vows that’s necessary for a marriage to become legal,” Work said. ”Most states require a marriage license to be issued.”

That would mean that you’re not actually breaking the bigamy laws unless you go through a second legal marriage. With most people, this is not the case. Typically when someone is in a polygamous relationship they have one legal marriage, and the other marriages are all “spiritual,” meaning they have religious or personal significance, but no legal bearing. But in Utah, co-habitating with people who you claim to be your “spiritual spouse” is illegal, and the penalty there is harsher than in other places. So critics of the law say would say it’s oppressive, and specifically designed to go after fundamentalist Mormons, like the Browns, who practice plural marriage.

GILGER: So this is why the Brown’s left Utah?

VENTRE: Not exactly. The most intense part of the law in Utah didn’t go into effect until last year. The Browns left following a bigamy investigation on them before that happened. But they’ve spoken very publicly on the show about how detrimental they believe this law is, and they even went to Utah to participate in a demonstration at the state capitol, which they worried might put them at risk of being arrested, though they weren’t.

GILGER: So are people actually prosecuted simply for practicing polygamy?

VENTRE: That is a complicated question. There is a history of the state and the feds cracking down on polygamy in communities like Short Creek. So people are prosecuted, but my understanding is that now it’s not very common. The people in favor of the strict laws against polygamy in Utah say that they are there for protection of children, and to make sure that if someone is committing another crime, like child abuse, they can also be prosecuted for polygamy. People like the Browns and others who advocate for the legalization of polygamy say these laws actually have the opposite effect. They say laws like this one drive people underground, and that they’re less likely to report abuse when it happens because they’re in an illegal institution to begin with. People like the Browns would also say that polygamy doesn’t cause these abuses, but that there are some bad people (like Warren Jeffs, who is the prophet of the FLDS church) who perpetuate abuses under the guise of polygamy.

I asked Claudia Work about whether the passage of laws like the one in Utah lead to more prosecutions, and she said there is no uptick, but that it’s also really hard to know how many people are actually prosecuted for something like this.

“And the problem with finding out how common it is to prosecute people — unless it makes the news or unless it is appealed up to a higher court, most people are never going to know who’s being prosecuted,” Work said.

That doesn’t change the fact that people are nervous about it. Public figures like the Browns, and even people who are not on TV, are sometimes concerned that just by being in a plural family, they risk prosecution. There were people in the community of Short Creek on the Utah-Arizona border that were hesitant to talk to me or wouldn’t speak on the record because they lived on the Utah side of the border, and knew that being in a polygamous relationship means they could potentially face jail time.

GILGER: So we know why the Browns moved to Utah. Is there any sense of why they are moving to Arizona?

VENTRE: For now the family just told People magazine that they’re looking for a slower paced life, and want to enjoy the mountain air, which Phoenicians can probably relate to that last part right now in the dregs of summer.

Sarah Ventre produces KJZZ’s two-hour daily program, The Show. Prior to working at KJZZ, she was a producer and editor at NPR headquarters in Washington for a number of shows, desks, podcasts and the national newscast. Her reporting ranges from understanding the relationship between faith, culture, and community among those who have left the FLDS church, to political implications of world music showcases at SXSW. Ventre’s work has been featured on Weekend Edition, Weekend All Things Considered, and on member station WAMU. Ventre also freelances for the Phoenix New Times, Bitch magazine, and several other publications. Ventre grew up in the Valley and is a founder of the nonprofit organization Girls Rock! Phoenix, which puts on a rock ’n’ roll camp for girls, trans, and gender nonconforming youths every summer. She also participates in live storytelling events, and occasionally performance art. Ventre holds a degree in anthropology from Arizona State University. She is always up for a good laugh or a great chile relleno, and is happy to have returned to her hometown to tell stories within her community.