Polygamy as Lifestyle Choice, and a Reality TV Brand

LAS VEGAS — Kody Brown, his four wives and 17 children want to be the new face of polygamy, what some consider the next frontier after same-sex marriage.

That is why, the Browns say, they invited TLC television cameras into their homes for their reality show “Sister Wives,” why they have written a best-selling book about their lives, and why they challenged Utah’s polygamy ban in federal court.

Fear of prosecution under that law led them to flee to Nevada. Last month, a federal judge partly overturned the ban, ruling that prohibiting “cohabitation” violates the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion.

In their first interview since the decision in that case, they presented a family whose polygamy is more “Father Knows Best” than fundamentalist patriarchy. It was also clear that going public opened a path toward wealth.

They promote their family arrangement as part of a growing wave of individual lifestyle choices, managing to anger both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which abandoned polygamy in 1890, and to some extent their own Mormon fundamentalist offshoot, the Apostolic United Brethren.

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the mainstream church, said polygamists, “including those in reality television programs,” have “no affiliation whatsoever” with the church, “despite the fact that the term ‘Mormon’ is sometimes misleadingly applied to them.” Of the lawsuit, he said, “The current legal efforts will have no bearing on the doctrines or practices of the church.”

As for the Browns’ own church, it promotes polygamy but does not condone homosexuality, and its leaders have quietly suggested that they are uncomfortable with the way the decision in the Browns’ lawsuit has been held up by some same-sex marriage advocates as supporting the underlying issue of personal privacy.

Having attained a measure of celebrity, the Browns find that people seek out their homes and stop them on the street, expecting hugs. While the familiarity can be unsettling, Robyn, one of the wives, said, it means “they saw us as a family, and that’s huge.” Others, however, sharply criticize them in online forums for exposing their children to the prying cameras of reality television, among other perceived offenses.

They have also been put off by the avid interest in the specifics of their intimate lives and the questions they get. They do not “go weird” in the bedroom, as Meri, another wife, has put it; their sexual relations are separate. “These are wholesome, individual marriages,” Robyn said. “It’s actually pretty boring.”

A recent afternoon with the family here suggested that Mr. Brown is far from the domineering figure of past polygamy horror stories like Warren Jeffs, the leader of another fundamentalist group who is serving a life sentence for child sexual abuse. Mr. Brown comes off more as a beleaguered sitcom father facing the challenges of scheduling family time split 21 ways.

Children wandered among the homes, forming random groupings in a kind of Brownian motion, playing, talking and making a companionable racket. Truely, a girl born in 2010, padded around the living room with a toy cellphone to her ear, arguing earnestly with an imaginary friend on the other end of the line: “You’ve got to understand.”

Robyn, who brought three children from an earlier marriage into the family, was nursing her child Solomon, born in 2011. Sprawled nearby were older children, some now in college.

The Browns face the same financial challenges of other families, but more so. College costs are a problem for everyone, but multiplied by 17 they present a nightmare. Until the show (which began in 2010) and the book, times were lean, and there were crises along with bankruptcy filings.

The Browns are reluctant to talk about those times, since they know that fundamentalist Mormons have a reputation for, as Mr. Brown put it, “bleeding the beast” — living off government assistance. Robyn said bankruptcy laws and food stamps exist to help people who fall on hard times.

“There are people who abuse it,” she said, “but not in this family.”

Mr. Brown and each of the wives works to support the family. Along with the income from the show and book, the Browns have an online jewelry business and are involved in a health supplements distributorship; Janelle works in real estate.

In Utah, and in an earlier home in Wyoming, they tried to stretch their dollars by growing an enormous garden and canning food. It did not always work out. In one early effort, Christine and Janelle recalled, they processed 70 quarts of tomatoes and put them in Mason jars. But they had already worked far into the night, and decided to put off the next step — boiling the filled jars — until the next morning.

It was a rookie mistake: the tomatoes spoiled overnight, and by morning, “They were blowing their lids,” Janelle recalled.

“We had tomatoes on the ceiling,” Mr. Brown said.

His first and only legally recognized marriage was in 1990 to Meri, the second in 1993 to Janelle. A year later came Christine. Those early years required complicated accommodation, as well as loud arguments and slammed doors. In 2010, Mr. Brown married Robyn at Meri’s initial suggestion, throwing them all into turmoil again but, again, reaching more of an equilibrium recently. Robyn has a knack for mediation that helped them all learn to argue more constructively.

That often involves the children. Mr. Brown tells the story that Madison, who is in high school and president of the student council, wanted to get her ears pierced. He was against it. Although his children do not wear the prairie dresses of some other fundamentalist sects, earrings, he says, are immodest.

“Our faith isn’t really open to the idea,” he said. He first told Madison that she should wait until graduation, but it quickly became clear that his wives thought the choice should be hers. “My wives were all fighting me here,” he recalled.

“We’re advocating for our daughter,” Meri clarified.

“Everything is a negotiation,” Mr. Brown said, as the retelling of the story became animated, with interruptions and whoops of laughter. He offered a proposal: “I’ll let you pierce them tonight if you promise you won’t get a tattoo until you’re 26.” She responded, “That’s too long!” He fell back to a final offer: tomorrow, and 25. She agreed.

Opponents of polygamy say that the Browns obscure the true damage that their lifestyle involves.

Kristyn Decker left an unhappy polygamist marriage and now leads the organization Sound Choices Coalition; she is also a second cousin by blood and an aunt by marriage to Christine Brown, one of the wives.

“Polygamy is harmful,” she said. “It’s very coercive, and it’s spiritual blackmail.” The Browns, she said, “are a very rare family.”

William Jankowiak, chairman of the department of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the Browns were far from unique, though. In his own studies of polygamous communities, he said: “About 35 percent of the families that I knew just had horrible marriages. They were miserable. But about 65 percent of the marriages were workable.”

In his decision in the case last month, Judge Clark Waddoups of United States District Court cited Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down laws prohibiting sodomy. Both that case and this one, he said, stand for the right of adults to privacy in the intimate aspects of their lives.

The Browns’ lawyer, Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said, “This is essentially the Lawrence v. Texas for plural families.”

The legal fight is not over. Judge Waddoups overturned the vague prohibition on cohabitation but left in place the state’s ability to prohibit multiple marriage licenses. And Utah’s attorney general, Sean Reyes, has said that he will appeal the decision.