Reality TV 'Sister Wives' to challenge Utah anti-polygamy law
Kody Brown and his four wives, the stars of TLC's reality show "Sister Wives."
July 12th, 2011
01:26 PM ET

Reality TV 'Sister Wives' to challenge Utah anti-polygamy law

By Joe Sterling, CNN

Kody Brown and his four wives - the stars of the reality TV show "Sister Wives" - will soon be the subjects of another real-life drama, this one at the federal court in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Browns plan to challenge the state's anti-bigamy statute Wednesday, when attorney Jonathan Turley files a complaint on behalf of the family's fight for the rights of "plural families."

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"There are tens of thousands of plural families in Utah and other states. We are one of those families," Kody Brown said in a statement posted on Turley's website Tuesday. "We only wish to live our private lives according our beliefs."

"Sister Wives" is a TLC program about the polygamous Browns and their 16 children. They've moved from Utah and now live in Nevada, a TLC spokeswoman said. Turley said "they could very well move back to Utah," but they had to leave because they were subject to criminal investigation and the "hostile environment" was not conducive to raising children.

Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said on his website that he and the Browns aren't calling for the "recognition of polygamous marriage."

"We are only challenging the right of the state to prosecute people for their private relations and demanding equal treatment with other citizens in living their lives according to their own beliefs," he said.

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Turley says the case "represents the strongest factual and legal basis for a challenge to the criminalization of polygamy ever filed in the federal courts."

Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's office, said the state "has defended the state's bigamy law in the past and the Utah Supreme Court has held that the state has the right to regulate marriage and to ban bigamy."

Bigamy is a third-degree felony with the potential penalty of one to 15 years in prison, Murphy said. The law was first enacted in the 1890s and the Utah Constitution also forbids polygamy. The law and the constitutional ban were a condition for Utah to become a state, he said.

The last person charged with bigamy was Rodney Holm, a Hildale, Utah, police officer who was also charged with unlawful sex with a 15 or 16 year old, Murphy told CNN.

Holm was convicted of bigamy and unlawful sex in 2003 for taking his first wife's younger sister as a third wife. Holm challenged the law but the Utah Supreme Court in 2006 held that the state has the right to regulate marriage and ban bigamy.

Utah is the base of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, and it has a history of polygamy, which the church renounced more than a century ago. However, offshoots of mainstream Mormonism still engage in the practice.

"This action seeks to protect one of the defining principles of this country, what Justice Louis Brandeis called 'the right to be left alone.' In that sense, it is a challenge designed to benefit not just polygamists but all citizens who wish to live their lives according to their own values - even if those values run counter to those of the majority in the state," Turley said.

One case that could figure as important in the case is the Lawrence v. Texas case in 2003, when the majority of the Supreme Court struck down laws banning consensual sex between same-sex couples. That case involved two consenting adults who didn't seek recognition of their relationship, were not involved in any crimes and whose behavior was private, Turley said.

Turley said that in polygamy cases, other crimes come up, such as child sex abuse. In this case, he said, the Browns are a successful family who've committed no crimes and have children who are thriving in school. They are simply living their private lives according to their own values and faith, Turley asserted, and aren't seeking multiple marriage licenses.

However, he told CNN, their spiritual matrimonial commitments, as seen on TV, have triggered suspicions from authorities in Utah regarding bigamy. Seeing their private behavior as law-breaking is an "obvious contradiction," because other combinations of people are not penalized for having multiple relations and multiple children by multiple partners.

The Browns, he said, should have the same rights as enjoyed by other kinds of families. Such individuals should not be subject to arrest the minute they express a spiritual commitment.

"Can they be prosecuted because their private relationships are obnoxious to other citizens?" he asks.

The Browns praised Turley and his team for their efforts.

"While we understand that this may be a long struggle in court, it has already been a long struggle for my family and other plural families to end the stereotypes and unfair treatment given consensual polygamy," Kody Brown said in his statement. "Together we hope to secure equal treatment with other families in the United States."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints • Utah

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