SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - A polygamous family made famous on reality TV show “Sister Wives” will not face Utah criminal charges of bigamy, state prosecutors said on Thursday, as they sought to have a federal judge dismiss a challenge to Utah’s law against multiple marriage partners.
A bigamy investigation - centered on Kody Brown, the four women he lives with and their 17 children - was launched by Utah County prosecutors in October 2010, shortly after the family made their lifestyle public on their show on cable network TLC. Utah County is south of Salt Lake City and had been home to the Brown family, who lived in the town of Lehi.
No charges were ever brought, but Brown and his partners - Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn - countered the threat of prosecution with a federal court lawsuit filed in July 2011 that contends Utah’s ban on having more than one marriage partner violates the U.S. Constitution.
They argued the law bars consenting adults from living together, and criminalizes their intimate sexual relationships.
The case has implications for thousands of self-described fundamentalist Mormons in Utah who still practice polygamy, even though the mainstream branch of Mormonism ended the practice among its members more than 100 years ago.
The Browns, who moved to Nevada last year to avoid prosecution, practice polygamy as part of their religious beliefs.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups in Salt Lake City dismissed the state from the lawsuit. Utah County’s portion of the lawsuit was not dismissed because the judge said the Browns continued to be at risk for criminal charges from local prosecutors.
But Utah County asked Waddoups to dismiss the case on Thursday. In supporting documents, Utah County Attorney Jeffrey Buhman said his office would not file bigamy charges, nor had an investigation found evidence of any other crimes such as child abuse and welfare fraud.
Buhman also said his office is adopting a policy of not prosecuting polygamists for bigamy alone - mirroring a policy held by the state attorney general’s office.
It is not clear when Waddoups might issue a ruling.
Critics of polygamy, which is practiced in a number of regions including parts of Africa, call it demeaning to women and more likely to lead to abuse within families.
FAMILY‘S LAWYER OPPOSES DISMISSAL
In a statement posted on his blog, the Browns’ Washington, D.C.-based attorney Jonathan Turley said he was pleased with Buhman’s decision not to prosecute them over their polygamous marriage, but that he has no plans to end his challenge to Utah’s law. “We do not believe that this decision and new policy renders this case moot,” Turley wrote.
The Browns’ lawsuit stops short of challenging the state’s right to decline to issue multiple marriage licenses to polygamous couples, and the family is not seeking such licenses.
But Turley contends that U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including the 2003 decision Lawrence v. Texas which struck down that state’s sodomy law, have extended constitutional protections to sexual relationships between consenting adults.
Under Utah’s law, a person of any gender can be guilty of bigamy for being married and co-habitating with another adult in a marriage-like relationship. The maximum penalty is five years in prison.
Kody Brown is only legally married to one of his four partners.
In a high-profile prosecution in Utah involving polygamy, prosecutors in 2001 brought a case against Tom Green who was convicted of bigamy for being married to five women at once, and of child rape in connection with his 1986 marriage to a 13-year-old girl. He served several years in prison.
Mormons brought the practice of polygamy to the Utah territory in the 1840s, but leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned it in 1890 as U.S. officials were citing the practice as unacceptable if Utah was to win statehood, which ultimately was granted in 1896.
The decision by Utah County prosecutors brings some relief to some Utah families who face the threat of prosecution, said Mary Batchelor, co-founder of Principle Voices, a Utah-based polygamy advocacy and education group. Her group says 38,000 residents of the state still practice polygamy in a handful of organized churches or independently.
“It actually points out that the law is flawed and that the law needs to be changed,” she said. “The saber-rattling doesn’t end because this county has decided on this policy. The law is still the law and it doesn’t mean that other counties will not prosecute other plural families.”
Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Lisa Shumaker