SALT LAKE CITY (The Blaze/AP) — A polygamous family made famous by the reality TV show “Sister Wives” plans to challenge the Utah bigamy law that makes their lifestyle illegal, a Washington-based attorney said Tuesday.
Bigamy is defined as “the act of entering into a marriage with one person while still legally married to another.”
In an email to The Associated Press, attorney Jonathan Turley said he will file the lawsuit challenging Utah’s bigamy law in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court on Wednesday.
Turley represents Kody Brown and his four wives, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn. Brown is only legally married to Meri Brown.
Originally from Lehi, the Browns, who have 16 children, have been featured on the TLC reality show since last fall. They moved out of Utah to Nevada in January after police and Utah County prosecutors launched a bigamy investigation. No charges were ever filed.
The Browns practice polygamy as part of their religious beliefs.
Bigamy is a third-degree felony in Utah. A person can be found guilty of bigamy through cohabitation, not just legal marriage contracts.
In a statement posted on his blog, Turley said the lawsuit will challenge Utah’s right to prosecute people for their private relationships.
“We are not demanding the recognition of polygamous marriage. We are only challenging the right of the state to prosecute people for their private relations and demanding equal treatment with other citizens in living their lives according to their own beliefs,” the statement reads. The New York Times has more:
The lawsuit is not demanding that states recognize polygamous marriage. Instead, the lawsuit builds on a 2003 United States Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down state sodomy laws as unconstitutional intrusions on the “intimate conduct” of consenting adults. It will ask the federal courts to tell states that they cannot punish polygamists for their own “intimate conduct” so long as they are not breaking other laws, like those regarding child abuse, incest or seeking multiple marriage licenses.
According to the statement, the lawsuit seeks to protect a person’s right to be left alone.
“In that sense, it is a challenge designed to benefit not just polygamists but all citizens who wish to live their lives according to their own values – even if those values run counter to those of the majority in the state,” Turley wrote.
Turley said he believes the case represents the “strongest factual and legal basis for a challenge to the criminalization of polygamy” ever filed in the federal courts.
Utah has not prosecuted a polygamist for bigamy since 2001. Tom Green, who was married to five women and drew the attention of Utah authorities after promoting his lifestyle on national TV talk shows, was convicted on bigamy, criminal nonsupport and child rape charges. He spent six years in prison and was released in 2007.
Polygamy in Utah and across the Intermountain West is a legacy of the early teachings of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons abandoned the practice of plural marriage in the 1890s as a condition of Utah’s statehood.
An estimated 38,000 self-described Mormon fundamentalists continue the practice, believing it brings exaltation in heaven. Most keep their way of life a secret out of fear of prosecution, although over the past 10 years an advocacy group made up mostly polygamous women has worked to educate the public and state agencies in Utah and Arizona about the culture.
The Browns have long said they believed making their life public on cable television was a risk worth taking if it helped advance the broader understanding of plural families. The lawsuit appears to be an extension of that belief.
“There are tens of thousands of plural families in Utah and other states. We are one of those families. We only wish to live our private lives according our beliefs,” Kody Brown said in a statement released through Turley. “While we understand that this may be a long struggle in court, it has already been a long struggle for my family and other plural families to end the stereotypes and unfair treatment given consensual polygamy.”