SALT LAKE CITY — Reality-TV stars Kody Brown and his four wives say they just want one thing: to be left alone.
As authorities investigate them for bigamy, the TLC “Sister Wives” family is asking a federal judge to overturn part of Utah’s bigamy law because it bans them from living together and criminalizes sexual relationships between unmarried consenting adults.
“What they are asking for is the right to structure their own lives, their own family, according to their faith and their beliefs,” said Jonathan Turley, their attorney, adding that the lawsuit is about privacy, not polygamy.
The case in federal court in Utah, however, could open up the possibility that a way of life for tens of thousands of self-described Mormon fundamentalists could be decriminalized.
While all states outlaw bigamy, some, like Utah, have laws that both prohibit having more than one marriage license at a time and ban some adults from living together and having a sexual relationship.
The latter provision could include same-sex couples, unmarried heterosexual couples and those, like the Browns, who do not have licenses but have created within their homes a marriagelike relationship.
Mr. Turley argued that under previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings, such as one that struck down Texas’ sodomy law, private intimate relationships between consenting adults are constitutionally protected.
The lawsuit doesn’t aim to challenge Utah’s right to refuse to recognize plural marriage, nor are the Browns seeking multiple marriage licenses, Mr. Turley said.
The display of the Brown family’s polygamous lifestyle on cable television drew the interest of Utah prosecutors. The Browns are members of the Apostolic United Brethren and practice polygamy as part of their religious beliefs.
Polygamy is the religious or cultural practice of a person having more than one spouse, which is defined as bigamy under law. Experts say it is a widely practiced, cross-cultural family structure found on every continent and in every major religion.
The family — Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn, plus 17 children — fled Utah for the Las Vegas suburbs in January after authorities launched a bigamy investigation. No charges have been filed.
Utah state attorneys say a bigamy prosecution isn’t likely and that the lawsuit should be dismissed. Though authorities are continuing their investigation, prosecutors say the probe isn’t limited to bigamy. They have not provided any more details.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups heard arguments over whether the Browns have standing to continue the case, a decision based in part on whether the family has been harmed by the Utah law.
Judge Waddoups will decide later whether to dismiss it or set a trial date.
Utah’s statehood was granted in the 1890s under the condition that plural marriage — which then was practiced openly by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — would be banned in the state constitution.
Bigamy has been illegal under federal law in the U.S. since the 1860s. In 1887 and 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge of the ban that argued that First Amendment protections should guarantee the right to continue the practice.
Church officials declined to comment for this story.
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