Four men have filed a federal lawsuit claiming the Utah Cohabitant Abuse and Domestic Violence Act - the law enabling domestic violence victims to get protective orders - is unconstitutional.

The men claim the state's process for offering the protective orders is being abused "by thousands of women to violate the civil rights of men."The suit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court on behalf of Tooele County resident Steve Huffman and Salt Lake County men Victor Petersen, Troy Young and Luis Rico.

Their attorneys, Alan Barber and Danny Quintana, want a judge to make it a class-action lawsuit on behalf of other men restrained by protection orders. They also want a judge to issue a temporary restraining order to stop enforcement of the Utah act.

Protective orders issued by judges can evict an accused batterer from a home, grant custody of children and prohibit contact between the accused and the victim. In fiscal year 1996, victims - predominantly women - obtained 6,832 orders.

But the new lawsuit says most requests for protective orders against men are based on false allegations.

State judges grant temporary orders and then extend them for months without holding an evidentiary hearing to probe and verify allegations of abuse, the attorneys charge.

That process violates men's rights to due process and equal protection under the law and infringes on their civil rights, the lawsuit contends.

Attorney General Jan Graham said she will "do everything possible to uphold the law." It plays an important role in protecting the victims of domestic violence, she said.

Protection order laws were overhauled in 1995 after Utah courts were criticized for failing to help victims. Today, some courts provide specialized court clerks to help victims through the process.

"They've made it too easy," said Barber. "It's a classic case of overreaction. It's turned into a free-for-all."

Recent sharp increases in demand for protection orders reflects abuse of the law, not increased need or awareness of family violence, Barber argues. The easy-to-obtain orders are being improperly used to resolve property disputes and child-custody fights, and judges are not acting to stop the abuse, he said.

Quintana suggests the state assign full-time protection-order judges, who would hear detailed evidence before issuing the powerful orders. When couples are breaking up, "They are so emotional that the first thing to suffer is the truth," Quintana said.

Now, overworked judges resist taking testimony, relying instead on brief statements by lawyers or litigants about what their evidence would show, he said.

The suit specifically charges the Division of Child and Family Services with violating men's civil rights by helping women obtain protection orders without investigating allegations of abuse.

The four men deny abusing their wives or girlfriends and allege the women misused the orders to control property or restrict access to children.