SALT LAKE CITY — The family from cable television's polygamous "Sister Wives" reality show has told a federal judge in Utah how much they've been hurt by the threat of prosecution under the state's bigamy law.
Kody Brown and his wives wrote in new court papers that they've lost jobs, were forced to move to Nevada and suffered harm to their reputations after police launched an investigation last year after the fall 2010 launch of their TLC show.
In July, Brown and wives Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robin, filed a lawsuit challenging Utah's bigamy law in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court. They contended that the law is unconstitutional and unfairly applied 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 Brown's 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 a response to petition filed by the Utah Attorney General's Office asking a federal judge to dismiss the case. It wasn't clear on Tuesday 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 won't likely face prosecution, because the state has rarely 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 actually support their contention that prosecution remains a threat. In one magazine article, for example, Deputy Utah County Attorney Donna Kelley said "the Browns have definitely made it easier for us by admitting to felonies on national TV."
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 Kody Brown and the termination of Meri Brown's employment because her bosses were concerned about the criminal investigation and the public statements suggesting she was a felon.
"Our continued labeling as presumptive felons has proven a barrier in finding new positions for the adults in Nevada," Kody Brown stated in his affidavit.
Other financial impacts included a loss of health insurance, moving expenses, increased housing expenses and travel expenses because the Browns must travel back to Utah if they want to attend their church.
The Browns also stated that their children — more than a dozen of them — have also suffered at school, where some of the children have endured remarks about their family being labeld as criminals.
"We literally live day to day without knowing whether our family will be destroyed by a decision of some prosecutor in Utah to charge us," Janelle Brown's affidavit stated.
Under Utah 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.
The Browns are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, one of handful of self-described Mormon fundamentalist churches that continue the practice as part of their faith. The polygamy advocacy group Principles Voices estimates there are about 40,000 fundamentalists who practice or believe in polygamy living in Utah and other western states. The practice is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The mainstream church abandoned polygamy in 1890 as Utah moved toward statehood.
Like most polygamists in Utah, Brown is legally married only to his first wife, Meri. He subsequently "wed" Janelle, Christine and Robyn only in religious ceremonies and the couples consider themselves "spiritually married."