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'Sister Wives' stars: Polygamy law challenge called demand for equality

Published July 12, 2011 10:30 pm

'Sister Wives' • They say plural marriage should no longer be considered a crime.
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Utah's complicated history with polygamy will start a new chapter Wednesday when an attorney for a reality-show family files a lawsuit that could send the state's ban on plural marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nationally-known constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley said the lawsuit to be filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City will not call for plural marriages to be recognized by the state. Instead, it asks for polygamy between consenting adults like his clients, former Utahn Kody Brown and his wives, to no longer be considered a crime.

"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," Turley said in a press release. The Browns star in the TLC network show "Sister Wives." There is no word yet on whether they will appear in a press conference scheduled for Wednesday.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said the country's ongoing legal wrangling over same-sex marriage will necessarily grow to include plural marriage — quite possibly centered around this case.

"I'm confident that we can [defend] a challenge all the way to the Supreme Court," Shurtleff said.

"Ultimately, this decision is going to have to go there. You see it coming," he added.

The Supreme Court toyed with taking on polygamy five years ago, when they asked for briefs in the case of polygamous police officer Rodney Holm, who was accused of having sex with a 16-year-old plural wife. The justices ultimately refused to hear his appeal.

"The whole case was tainted by [sexual contact with a minor]. We didn't die on the courthouse steps, we died inside," said attorney Rod Parker, who represented Holm. "I don't know if [the Brown case] will be the one, but sooner or later one's going to go there ... if it's factually clean."

Meanwhile, Kody Brown released a statement saying his is one of tens of thousands of polygamous families looking for "equal treatment."

"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.

The complaint to be filed Wednesday, Turley said, presents seven constitutional challenges to the state's bigamy law. It is largely based on the right to privacy.

"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," said Turley, a member of the faculty at George Washington University.

Members of the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once believed in polygamy as a religious tenet, but the practice was abandoned as a condition of Utah receiving statehood in 1896. Groups calling themselves fundamentalist Mormons have continued the practice, though usually out of the spotlight. The first exception since the 1970s was Tom Green, who was prosecuted for bigamy after promoting his beliefs on national television 10 years ago.

Since his conviction, other challenges have arisen to the polygamy law. Also, a couple who hoped to add a second wife sued when a clerk refused to issue them a marriage license in 2004. Their case was dismissed by a federal appeals court.

The Browns stepped forward to announce the reality show last year. Kody Brown and wives Christine Brown, Janelle Brown, Meri Brown and Robyn Sullivan are well into adulthood and portray themselves as living an otherwise middle-class life.They lived in Lehi until last year, when they moved to Nevada with their 16 children after police started an investigation sparked by the show.

No charges have been filed against them, though Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman said Tuesday the case remains under investigation. Turley said that investigation has not found evidence of child abuse or underage marriage.

Polygamy advocate Anne Wilde said she supports the Brown family. Her group, Principle Voices, has long been pushing for a rollback of the polygamy law.

"If there are no other crimes involved, then we should have the civil rights to live our religion and form our families the way we would like to do," she said Tuesday.

The Browns are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, a group of about 7,500 people spread throughout Utah. Most AUB members live in urban settings and wear contemporary clothing, according to Principle Voices.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

Press conference Wednesday

P The attorney for the "Sister Wives" family will hold a press conference at 1 p.m. at Salt Lake City's federal courthouse, 350 S. Main St. —

Kody Brown statement, via his attorney

"There are tens of thousands of plural families in Utah and other states. We are one of those families. We only wish to live our private lives according to our beliefs. 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. We are indebted to professor Turley and his team for their work and dedication. Together we hope to secure equal treatment with other families in the United States." —

Utah on polygamy

Bigamy is a third-degree felony in Utah, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. Utah's criminal statute on bigamy 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."