February 4, 2012 at 9:15 PM CST - Updated June 26 at 10:53 AM
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge has ruled there's sufficient evidence to allow a polygamous family made famous by a reality TV show to pursue a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Utah's bigamy law.
U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups on Friday dismissed Utah's governor and attorney general from the case, but allowed the suit to proceed against Utah County Attorney Jeffrey Buhman, the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune report.
Buhman threatened to prosecute Kody Brown and his four wives — Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn — after the TLC show "Sister Wives" debuted in September 2010, but his office has not filed charges.
The family sued Buhman, Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff in July 2011, claiming Utah's bigamy statute violates its constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, free exercise of religion, free speech and freedom of association. Waddoups, in his 21-page ruling, wrote that he dismissed Herbert and Shurtleff from the case because Shurtleff assured the Browns that they wouldn't be prosecuted. Shurtleff has a policy of not prosecuting consenting adult polygamists s as long as they're not committing other crimes.
But the judge wrote that Buhman conducted interviews with the news media that made it clear he intended to investigate and prosecute the Browns. The fact that no charges have been filed does not matter, he added.
"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," Waddoups wrote.
There's reason for the Browns to believe they could face prosecution in Utah County, the judge continued, and that could have a "chilling effect" on their ability to practice their First Amendment rights in the state.
But the Browns must show that there's a real and viable threat to their constitutional rights for the lawsuit to hold up in court, Waddoups wrote.
Brown moved his wives and 16 children from Lehi to the Las Vegas area in January 2001.
Buhman said he had not yet reviewed the ruling and was not prepared to comment.