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On Tuesday, however, his spokesman, Paul Murphy said the state is prepared to defend its bigamy law.

Utah has not prosecuted a polygamist for bigamy since 2003, when former Hildale police officer Rodney Holm was convicted of bigamy and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor for entering a religious marriage with a 16-year-old girl when he was already married to her sister. Holm was 32.

He served a year in jail and probation.

Holm, a member of the southern-Utah based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, argued that a ban on polygamy violated his constitutional right to practice his religion.

The Utah Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 2006, although in a dissenting opinion, the state’s chief justice said the state unfairly applied the law to polygamists and “oversteps the lines protecting the free exercise of religion and the privacy of intimate, personal relationships between consenting adults.”

The U.S. Supreme Court also denied an appeal from Holm in 2007. The high court banned the practice of polygamy, even in the context of religion, in 1879.

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 of polygamous women has worked to educate the public and state agencies in Utah and Arizona about the culture.

“This is a good time for the lawsuit, we’ve tried to set that stage for this for 10 years,” said Anne Wilde, co-founder of the advocacy group Principle Voices. “We’ve really tried to help people understand that this not a criminal lifestyle among consenting adults.”

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Jennifer Dobner can be reached at www.twitter.com/JenniferDobner