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Facing challenge from reality TV family, Utah defends bigamy law

By Jennifer Dobner

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Utah attorneys defended a state bigamy law on Thursday in federal court as necessary to protect women and children from abuse as they sought to fend off a challenge by a polygamist family made famous in the reality TV show "Sister Wives."

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups is poised to decide whether Utah's law is unconstitutionally broad because it bars consenting adults from living together and criminalizes their intimate sexual relationships.

That's the contention of Kody Brown and the four women he publicly lives with on the TLC show "Sister Wives." The family and their 17 collective children formerly lived in Lehi, Utah, but fled to Nevada to avoid a bigamy prosecution after authorities launched a probe into their lifestyle.

No charges were ever brought, but Brown and his wives - Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn - launched a federal lawsuit in 2011 contending that Utah's ban on multiple marriage partners violates the U.S. Constitution.

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.

"What the Browns are seeking is what most families take for granted," Jonathan Turley, the family's Washington, D.C.-based attorney, said after Thursday's hearing. "They believe that they can order their personal lives according to their views, their beliefs, their values."

He added that families like the Browns "live under the condemnation that they are felons" because of Utah law.

Waddoups, who heard arguments in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, took the matter under advisement. It was not clear when he will issue a ruling.

UTAH LAW UNIQUE

Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states. But Utah's law is unique in that a person can be guilty not just for having two legal marriage licenses, but also for cohabiting with another adult in a marriage-like relationship. Bigamy is a third-degree felony in Utah, punishable by up to five years in prison.

On Thursday, the judge pressed state attorneys to explain why Utah should regulate such relationships between consenting adults.

"The government has a legitimate interest in protecting people from being injured," Assistant Utah Attorney General Jerry Jensen said, adding that both the Utah Supreme Court and a federal appeals court have upheld Utah's law in past cases.

Jensen also contended that polygamous culture was "replete" with stories of teen girls forced to marry older men, boys kicked out of sects so they can't compete for young brides, child sexual abuse and other crimes.

But the judge noted that state attorneys failed to cite a single case in court papers that paralleled the Brown's family life - involving consenting adults with no collateral crimes such as abuse or welfare fraud are present.

"The Brown's haven't been harmed," Jensen said, acknowledging that the statute isn't generally enforced against such families. "They were never prosecuted."

The Browns are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, a Utah-based church that follows the early Mormon theological doctrine of plural marriage, thought to bring exaltation in heaven.

The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly abandoned polygamy in 1890 as Utah was seeking statehood.

Kody Brown has legal marriage with Meri Brown, but also considers himself "spiritually married" to Janelle, Christine and Robyn, whom he wed in religious ceremonies.

The lawsuit stops short of challenging Utah's right to decline to issue multiple marriage licenses to polygamous couples, and the family is not seeking any legal recognition or validation of their relationships, Turley said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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