SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The polygamous family featured on cable television’s “Sister Wives” has filed a federal challenge to the Utah bigamy law that makes their lifestyle illegal.
Attorney Jonathan Turley filed the lawsuit in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court on Wednesday on behalf of Kody Brown and his four wives _ Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn. Kody Brown is only legally married to Meri Brown.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare Utah’s bigamy statute, unconstitutional. Under the law, it is illegal for unmarried persons to cohabitate, or “purport” to be married. A person is also guilty of bigamy if they hold multiple legal marriage licenses.
The third-degree felony is punishable by up to five years in state prison. Both men and women can be prosecuted under the law, which also applies to unmarried, monogamous couples that live together.
Like most polygamists in Utah, Brown married the other three women only in religious ceremonies and the couples consider themselves “spiritually married.”
Formerly, of Lehi, the Browns belong to the Apostolic United Bretheran, a fundamentalist church that practices polygamy as part of its faith.
The Browns and their 16 children moved to Nevada in January after Utah authorities launched a bigamy investigation. No charges were ever filed, but Tuesday, Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman said the investigation is ongoing.
Turley, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington D.C., said the lawsuit doesn’t aim to challenge Utah’s right to refuse to recognize plural marriage, nor are the Browns seeking multiple marriage licenses.
“What they are asking for is the right to structure their own lives, their own family, according to their faith and their beliefs,” he said at a news conference outside the federal courthouse.
Turley said the focus of the lawsuit is really privacy _ not polygamy _ and follows the principles of lawsuits like Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down Texas’ sodomy law and held that private intimate relationships between consenting adults was constitutionally protected.
The lawsuit contends Utah law violates an array of constitutional rights, including freedom of religion, free speech, due process and equal protection.
“There’s a host of constitutional problems when a state goes into a family and says your family has to look like ours. You have to live your life according to our values and our morals,” Turley said.
Turley said the Browns and other polygamous families shouldn’t have to live under the threat of a law that makes them “presumptive criminals” simply because of their family structure.
“The question is, in this country is whether you can have a family that’s different,” he said. “We’re going to try to see if we can secure the same rights for the Browns as other families enjoy.”
In the past, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff had said his office would not prosecute polygamy between consenting adults, because it was focused on polygamy-related crimes like child abuse and underage marriage.