Sister Wives family to challenge Utah polygamy laws

SALT LAKE CITY Wed Jul 13, 2011 11:34pm IST

Kody Brown with sister wives (L to R) Robyn, Christine, Meri and Janelle. REUTERS/TLC/George Lange

Kody Brown with sister wives (L to R) Robyn, Christine, Meri and Janelle.

Credit: Reuters/TLC/George Lange

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SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - The family featured on the U.S. reality TV series "Sister Wives," about an advertising executive and four women he calls spouses, is challenging the government's right to criminalize its lifestyle, the family's lawyer said.

The family, in a lawsuit to be filed on Wednesday, will challenge Utah's bigamy statute. It is not trying to get the government to recognize plural marriage, just to stay out of the intimate affairs of consenting adults.

"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," family attorney Jonathan Turley said in a statement.

"Sister Wives", which has just concluded its second season, premiered in the U.S. on cable television in September, earning strong ratings while also drawing the attention of authorities in the Utah town of Lehi, south of Salt Lake city, where the family shared a large house.

The show documents the world of Kody Brown, then 41, and the four women he lives with -- Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn -- along with their children, as they seek to fit in with mainstream society while maintaining their religious beliefs in plural marriage.

Brown is legally married to just one of the women, but counts the three others as "sister wives," a term in polygamous sects that refers to a husband's multiple marital partners.

Turley said earlier this year that the Browns and their 16 children moved from their Lehi, Utah home to an undisclosed location in Nevada.

Lehi residents had complained about the publicity and felt the show depicted their community in an unsavory light.

Utah law enforcement officials conducted an investigation into the family but no charges have been filed, and their lawyer has previously praised prosecutors for their "commendable discretion and judgment" in the case.

He has said that in the past, Utah officials had made it clear to polygamous families that they would not pursue them absent evidence of another crime, such as child abuse.

Plural marriage, an early tenant of the Mormon faith and once common in Utah, was renounced by the church more than 150 years ago and outlawed, as it already was in the rest of the country, as Utah was seeking statehood.

But polygamy persists in secluded communities scattered mostly around the West, especially among followers of a Mormon splinter group called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the FLDS.

"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 our beliefs," Kody Brown said in a statement.

"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 added.

Plural marriage was largely overlooked by Utah authorities until 2001, when polygamist Tom Green went on national TV to espouse his lifestyle. He ultimately was convicted of bigamy for being married to five women simultaneously, and of child rape in connection with his 1986 marriage to a 13-year-old girl. He served several years in prison.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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