Reality TV show polygamist and his four wives challenge Utah's bigamy laws - with support from their fellow 'Sister Wives'
Kody Brown and his four wives

Fighting for their rights: Kody Brown, center, poses with his wives, from left, Robyn, Christine, Meri and Janelle
Valerie and Vicki Darger

Supporting sister wives: Polygamists Valerie Darger, left, and Vicki Darger, walk from the Frank E. Moss United States Courthouse after Thursday's hearing
Kristyn DeckerJonathan Turley

Anti-polygamy activist Kristyn Decker was also present at court, left, and the Browns were represented by their attorney Jonathan Turley

A federal judge heard legal arguments in a Salt Lake City court on Thursday that could potentially decriminalize polygamy in Utah, as a reality TV show polygamist and his four wives sought to overturn the state's ban on plural marriage.

The stars of reality show 'Sister Wives' Kody Brown and his four wives - Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn - claim the law is unconstitutional.

The family fled Utah for Las Vegas last year under the threat of prosecution. They did not attend the hearing in Salt Lake City, but had support in the shape of fellow sister-wives Valerie and Vicki Darger.

'They're talking about my life,' Valerie Darger told FOX 13. 'The thing that's different about what we're asking for is the right to exist and the right to be left alone. We're not seeking marriage licenses, and so, as far as legal marriage goes, it doesn't really pertain.'

There were also opponents at the trail including anti-polygamy activist Kristyn Decker, an ex-polygamous wife who left a relationship 11 years ago.

She runs a group opposed to polygamy and led a protest to call attention to abuses and child-bride marriages within some polygamous communities.

'We feel like if they decriminalize polygamy, the human rights violations that have gone on for so long will just continue,' Decker said.

The Browns were represented in court by their attorney Jonathan Turley.

He told the court that the Browns' only sin was opening their family to the TLC hit series, which drew the attention of Utah authorities.

'The Browns wanted to show people that a plural family is not a monstrosity,' said Turley. 'The state is saying if you didn't do this TV show, you wouldn't have a problem.'

'They have a right to free speech and are being prosecuted for it.'

The hearing dealt with the legalities of due process and freedom of association.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups peppered a state lawyer on why he shouldn't throw out Utah's bigamy law. It's stricter than the laws in 49 other states - most of them prohibit people from having multiple marriage licenses.

Utah makes it illegal to even purport to be married to multiple partners or live together.

What if Kody Brown kept separate households for each wife, or was just having affairs, the judge asked.

'That would not be polygamy,' said Assistant Utah Attorney General Jerrold Jensen.

Yet Jensen argued Utah's unique history of polygamy for more than 100 years has made victims of thousands of girls forced to marry as young as 13, and caused rampant child abuse, with boys 'kicked out on the street' to reduce competition for older men seeking multiple brides.

He said the state has an interest in preventing social harm.

Waddoups said the Browns' 17 children are irrelevant to the case, and Turley argued that sex and child abuse was just as common in monogamous families.

Waddoups challenged Jensen on whether Utah was cracking down on a religion. Most polygamists in the state call themselves fundamentalist Mormons, although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

'Every state in the nation has these laws - and not every state has Mormon polygamists,' replied Jensen, who argued that bigamy was not merely adultery.

'I'll tell you what makes it different - the harm to women and children coming out of a polygamous relationship. We have a history of it in Utah - stories in the thousands.'

Turley said Utah has to prove the harm of polygamy, not assert general statements. He argued the exile of young boys was a myth and that Utah was trying to enforce morality.

'We're asking for what Justice Brandeis called the most important constitutional right, the right to be left alone,' Turley said, referring to Louis Brandeis, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939.
Originally published 18 January 2013