'Sister Wives' family challenges Utah's polygamy law in federal court
Tom Smart, Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Kody Brown and his four wives filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday, challenging Utah's law that criminalizes polygamy.
In filing the suit, the Browns' attorney Jonathan Turley said the family seeks to live according to its deep-seated religious beliefs and faith and not as "presumptive criminals."
"This family looks different than a lot of families in Utah. But it's not your family. It's their family," Turley said outside the U.S. District Courthouse.
The lawsuit claims Utah's bigamy statute violates the Browns' constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, free exercise of religion, free speech and freedom of association. The law reads: "A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person."
Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman, who is named in the suit, has threatened to prosecute the Browns since their television reality show "Sister Wives" debuted on TLC last September, but his office has not filed charges. Brown moved his wives — Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn — and 16 children from Lehi to Nevada in January.
The Browns, members of the Salt Lake City-based Apostolic United Brethren, expect to move back to Utah, according to the suit.
Salt Lake civil rights attorney Brian Barnard unsuccessfully challenged the bigamy law several times. Because the Browns live in Nevada and haven't been prosecuted in Utah, he believes it will be difficult for them to gain standing in federal court. Federal courts, he said, are hesitant to weigh in on cases that aren't "ripe" or that lack controversy.
"Is there really harm? Have they been harmed? Not yet," Barnard said.
And assistant Utah County attorney Donna Kelly said the Browns haven't been charged, let alone convicted of anything.
But Turley doesn't see that as hurdle. "Whether they're indicted or not is immaterial," he said, adding the threat of prosecution is enough to gain standing. "That's something that no other family has to live with."
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he's confident the state can defend the law.
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