‘Sister Wives’ family describes harm of bigamy investigation
The family from cable television’s polygamous “Sister Wives” reality show has told a federal judge in Utah how much they have been hurt by the threat of prosecution under the state’s bigamy law.
According to the Associated Press, Kody Brown and his wives wrote in new court papers that they lost jobs, were forced to move to Nevada and suffered harm to their reputations after police launched an investigation last year following the fall 2010 premiere of their TLC show.
In July, Mr. Brown and wives Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn filed a lawsuit challenging Utah’s bigamy law in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court. They contended the law is unconstitutional and applied unfairly to polygamists.
“Because the Browns are open about their polygamist lifestyle, the criminal bigamy statute has the effect of publicly labeling them as presumptive felons,” the Browns’ Washington, D.C.-based attorney, Jonathan Turley, wrote in court papers filed Monday. “The statute further brands them as immoral and societal outsiders.”
The court papers were filed in response to petition by the Utah attorney general’s office asking a federal judge to dismiss the case. It wasn’t clear whether a judge would issue a decision based on the court pleadings or schedule a hearing for oral arguments.
State prosecutors contend the Browns - who haven’t been charged - aren’t facing any real harm and likely won’t face prosecution, because the state rarely has prosecuted individuals for bigamy without also prosecuting underlying crimes, such as underage marriages, abuse or welfare fraud.
But the Browns said the harms to their family are real and that the public statements of Utah County prosecutors support their contention that prosecution remains a threat. In one magazine article, for example, Deputy Utah County Attorney Donna Kelly said “the Browns have definitely made it easier for us by admitting to felonies on national TV.”
Mr. Turley contended that such statements have had a “chilling effect” on the family’s right to free speech, influencing what they can say publicly or on their television show, and curtailing their ability to practice their religion.
Affidavits from Kody, Meri and Janelle Brown detailed the financial impact on the family. Those included a loss of sales accounts for Mr. Brown and the termination of Meri Brown’s employment because her bosses were concerned about the criminal investigation.
Under Utah law, it is illegal for unmarried people to cohabitate or “purport” to be married. People also are 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 other polygamists in Utah, Mr. Brown is legally married only to his first wife, Meri. He subsequently “wed” Janelle, Christine and Robyn in religious ceremonies, and the couples consider themselves “spiritually married.”
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