SALT LAKE CITY – The polygamous family featured on cable television’s “Sister Wives” has filed a federal challenge to the Utah bigamy law that makes their lifestyle illegal.
Attorney Jonathan Turley filed the lawsuit in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court on Wednesday on behalf of Kody Brown and his four wives – Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn. Kody Brown is only legally married to Meri Brown.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare Utah’s bigamy statute, unconstitutional. Under the law, it is illegal for unmarried persons to cohabitate, or “purport” to be married. A person is also guilty of bigamy if they hold multiple legal marriage licenses.
The third-degree felony is punishable by up to five years in state prison. Both men and women can be prosecuted under the law, which also applies to unmarried, monogamous couples that live together.
Like most polygamists in Utah, Brown married the other three women only in religious ceremonies and the couples consider themselves “spiritually married.”
Formerly, of Lehi, the Browns belong to the Apostolic United Bretheran, a fundamentalist church that practices polygamy as part of its faith.
The Browns and their 16 children moved to Nevada in January after Utah authorities launched a bigamy investigation. No charges were ever filed, but Tuesday, Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman said the investigation is ongoing.
Turley, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said the lawsuit doesn’t aim to challenge Utah’s right to refuse to recognize plural marriage, nor are the Browns seeking multiple marriage licenses.
“What they are asking for is the right to structure their own lives, their own family, according to their faith and their beliefs,” he said at a news conference outside the federal courthouse.
Turley said the focus of the lawsuit is really privacy – not polygamy.