Today’s reality show culture has produced a legal case that in an unexpected way may end up testing the definition of marriage.
A federal judge has ruled that the polygamous family featured on the “Sister Wives”
reality show can continue with a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of Utah's anti-bigamy law.
The lawsuit, which was brought by Kody Brown and his four wives, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn, against Utah officials and the local media, alleges that Utah's anti-bigamy statutes infringe upon their constitutional rights of free speech, due process, freedom of religion, equal protection, and freedom of association.
The Brown family became famous after their TLC cable television reality show debuted in September 2010.
Together the Browns have 17 children. They are members of the Apostolic United Brethren Church, a polygamous Mormon fundamentalist church not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Brown family reportedly launched their TV show in hopes of educating people on what they refer to as “plural marriages.”
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has a stated policy that he will not prosecute consenting adult polygamists as long as they are not committing other crimes. Prior to the premiere of “Sister Wives,” Shurtleff had assured the Brown family that they would not be prosecuted, according to the judge’s ruling. However, Utah County Attorney Jeffrey Buhman granted interviews that suggested the family would be prosecuted.
County attorneys have not filed charges but have repeatedly indicated that the investigation remains open.
U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups was highly critical of Utah County prosecutors for having discussed a bigamy investigation with the Salt Lake Tribune, People magazine, and other media shortly after the show premiered on TLC.
It is not every day that a jurist uses the term “showboat” when referring to prosecutors, but the judge said the following: “The entirety of actions by the Utah County prosecutors tend to show either an ill-conceived public-relations campaign to showboat their own authority and/or harass the Browns and the polygamist community at large, or to assure the public that they intended to carry out their public obligations and prosecute violations of the law.”
Judge Waddoups made the determination that Brown and his four wives face a “credible threat” of prosecution in Utah County and reasoned that the suggestion of prosecution potentially had a “chilling effect” on the family's First Amendment rights.
The family had sued Buhman, Governor Gary Herbert, and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff in July 2011. The judge, however, dismissed the governor and attorney general but allowed the case to continue against the Desert News, the Salt Lake Tribune, and Buhman.
If the Brown family members are able to meet their burden of proof and establish that the law is unconstitutional, it is likely that other lawsuits will follow.
James Hirsen, J.D., M.A. in media psychology, is a New York Times best-selling author, media analyst, and law professor. He is admitted to practice in the U.S. Supreme Court and has made several appearances there on landmark decisions. Visit Newsmax.TV Hollywood.
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