July 13th, 2011
08:46 PM ET
By the CNN Wire Staff
(CNN) - The stars of TLC's "Sister Wives" reality show sued Utah's governor Wednesday, asking a judge to block the state's long-standing law against polygamy.
The suit, filed in federal court on behalf of Kody Brown and his four wives, argues that Utah's restrictions are unconstitutional.
"By criminalizing religious-based plural families and intimate relationships under the criminal bigamy law, Utah officials prosecute private conduct between consenting adults," the lawsuit says.
In a statement posted on his attorney's website, Brown said he and his family "only wish to live our private lives according to our beliefs," adding they are ready for what could be a long legal battle.
"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," he said.
Bigamy is a third-degree felony with a potential penalty of up to 15 years in prison, Utah Attorney General's Office spokesman Paul Murphy told CNN Tuesday. Officials first enacted the law in the 1890s and the Utah Constitution also forbids polygamy. Both steps were required conditions for Utah to become a state, he 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," Murphy said.
But after filing the lawsuit, attorney Jonathan Turley told reporters that polygamy also has deep roots.
"Polygamy, whether you like it or not, is a deep-seated religious belief. It has been present in this country since the founding of the republic and before," said Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School.
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.
Turley told reporters that his clients are not criminals and stressed that they are not seeking marriage licenses.
"There are no crimes in this case," he said. "There is simply a family that is different from other families."
In a statement on his website, Turley said the lawsuit is "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."
Utah is the base of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, and it has a history of polygamy. Although the church renounced the practice more than a century ago, offshoots of mainstream Mormonism still engage in the practice.
"They are subject to criminal prosecution ... solely because they call themselves a family in the eyes of their church," the lawsuit says.
Millions of people have tuned in to watch "Sister Wives" since it began airing on TLC in 2010, the network said.
The show documents the lives of Brown, his four wives and 16 children. The family has moved from Utah and now lives in Nevada, a TLC spokeswoman said.
The week the show first aired, police in Utah said they were investigating the family and would forward evidence to state prosecutors.
"When we decided to do this show, we knew there would be risks," the family said in a statement at the time. "But for the sake of our family, and most importantly, our kids, we felt it was a risk worth taking."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.