Broaching Polygamy

The New York Times presents a debate on polygamy that includes IGF friend John Corvino, who says:

Polygamy raises a number of public-policy concerns that same-sex marriage does not. … While I’m skeptical about extending state recognition to plural marriages, a free society has no more business outlawing “cohabitation” — as the Utah law did—than it has outlawing consensual romantic relationships. Instead of fearmongering, it’s time we debate polygamy on the merits.

I would agree. There are strong arguments against extending marriage recognition to polygamy, but also major differences between fundamentalist religious polygamy, in which women have few if any rights, and what might be termed contemporary polyamory, in which long-term trios, for instance, see themselves as real families that deserve the rights of families. Without question, the topic will continue to be used by social conservatives to discredit same-sex marriage equality as a “slippery slope.” But the issue should nevertheless be addressed and debated.

8 Comments for “Broaching Polygamy”

  1. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    Without question, the topic will be continue to be used by social conservatives to discredit same-sex marriage equality as a “slippery slop.”

    True enough. Social conservatives are determined to link same-sex marriage and polygamy, no matter what the facts, and despite reason.

    We are seeing a good example of the lengths to which social conservatives will go to link the two in recent days, since the decision in Utah.

    The Utah case did not overturn Utah’s ban on polygamy, which is tecnically a law prohibiting bigamy (civil marriage to more than one spouse at a time). All states outlaw bigamy, and the Utah case does not affect the validity of any such laws. Bigamy, hence polygamy, remains illegal throughout the United States, including Utah.

    Instead, the case ruled that Utah’s ban on cohabitation (unmarried adults living together in a sexual relationship) is unconstitutional. Cohabitation laws criminalize unmarried couples as well as those involved in multiple-partner relationships.

    It is difficult to estimate the number of cohabiting couples. Roughly 16-20 million households in the United States are maintained by unmarried adults living together, but that number includes adults who are not in a sexual relationship. Reasonably conservative estimates are that about 5-6 million couples are cohabiting in the United States at any given time, and that more than half of the adults now living in the United States have cohabited at one time or another.

    Although cohabitation laws were common 60 years ago, most states deciminalized cohabitation in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The ruling directly affects Utah’s ban on cohabitation, and indirectly affects laws in the three other states that continue to criminalize cohabitation (Florida, Michigan, and Mississippi).

    The case is being described in the media as a “polygamy” case because the case was brought by a man and four women living in a multiple-partner relationship, but the case legally has nothing to do with polygamous marriage or with marriage laws in general. It has to do with the right of consenting adults to live together if that is what they want to do, without government interference.

    Because it is solidly based on a long line of “the right to be left alone” cases, ranging from Griswold to Lawrence, I have no doubt that the court’s ruling will be upheld on appeal.

    But you would never know that the Utah case has nothing to do with polygamous marriage if you listened to social conservatives.

    Listening to them, you would think that the case is all about polygamous marriage. None of them are talking about cohabitation. All of them are talking about polygamy and the “slippery slope”.

    Typical is this remark by Matt Staver of the Liberty Counsel:

    “We have warned of this slippery slope for years,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the far-right Liberty Counsel. “If marriage is deconstructed to include people of the same sex, then there is no logical or legal argument to ban polygamy or polyamory. Same-sex marriage is the abolition of marriage and will destroy the most basic foundation of family and civil society.”

    I may be cynical, but I don’t think that social conservatives are making a mistake born of ignorance. It think that the mischaracterization of the Utah case is intentional. By characterizing the case as a “polygamy” case, and linking the case to same-sex marriage, social conservatives are able to fan fears about the “slippery slope” to raise yet more money to oppose same-sex marriage. “Keep those checks coming for Jesus, folks …”

    Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, the man who is acknowledged as the author of the 2012 Republican Platform on social conservative issues, had a more interesting take than the usual run-of-the-mill “slippery slope” from same-sex marriage to polygamous marriage to marriage with animals:

    “Within the last week, the American people have witnessed two serious consequences of redefining marriage: a Colorado baker is risking jail if he refuses to obey a court order to bake a cake for same-sex ‘weddings’ in contradiction to his Christian faith and now a federal judge cites same-sex marriage in his decision striking down Utah’s law against polygamy. This court ruling altering over a century of established public policy once again warns Americans that same-sex marriage is less about the marriage altar than it is fundamentally altering America’s moral, political and cultural landscape.”

    [A site note: Perkins, as seems always to be the case these days, is misrepresenting the facts. The court ruling did not “alter over a century of established public policy”. The legislatures did that long ago, when state legislatures, one by one, decriminalized cohabitation in all but four states. Utah’s cohabitation law is a relic from another day, kept in force by LDS concerns that defacto polygamy might tarnish the “all-American” public image of the organization.]

    What fascinates me is Perkin’s conflation of the “wedding cake” cases and polygamy.

    I suspect that Perkins has no idea that the Supreme Court case that upheld laws banning polygamy (Reynolds v. United States – 98 U.S. 145 (1878), explicitly relied on separation of church and state (citing Jefferson’s “wall of separation” observations) to hold that the common good trumped religious freedom in civil law, but that the Utah case was decided, in part, because the cohabitation ban interfered with the partners’ practice of their religious beliefs.

    If and when polygamy laws are directly challenged, religious conservatives are going to be caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to insist that religious freedom should prevail over the common good when Christians don’t want to bake a cake or take a photograph, but should not when religious freedom interferes with upholding “one man, one woman and no dogs”.

    But the issue should nevertheless be addressed and debated.

    I agree. Polygamous marriage is permitted by at least one major world religion, and is relative common in a number of cultures. I think that there are solid arguments to be made against polygamous marriage from a public policy perspective, but I think that we should have the discussion.

    • posted by Jim Michaud on

      Tom, I agree that soc cons will be stuck in a weird territory when polygamy laws will be challenged. The sad part is they won’t frickin’ care. They’ve been performing twisted logic for years now so what’s wrong with a little dichotomy now? They’ll just spout off their prepared talking points, plead for money (and get it from their low information sheeple) and desperately cling to whatever suits their worldview.

      • posted by Tom Scharbach on

        The sad part is they won’t frickin’ care. They’ve been performing twisted logic for years now so what’s wrong with a little dichotomy now?

        Dead on. As we speak, social conservatives are touting Vladimir Putin as the epitome of Christian moral values. The latest is Pat Buchanan, loudmouthed Defender of the Faith. You can’t get more twisted than that …

    • posted by J. Bruce Wilcox on

      The absurdity of all this amazes- has anybody checked the cost of living recently? The level of backward thinking amongst religionists- who apparently still think every person on Earth is going to grow up- marry (only) some one other individual of the opposite sex and then stay married until they both magically die on the same day- continues to blow my mind. What a load of crap.

      Has anybody noticed all the post-divorce or post-death ‘blended’ families? Has anybody noticed all the young people living together because they haven’t yet found ‘the one’ and they can’t afford to live alone and both they and their parents don’t want them living at home anymore? Has anybody noticed all the unmarried post-marriage divorced people living together because it’s just flat out expensive to exist- sex or not? Has anybody noticed all the seniors choosing to live together in retirement communities or assisted living? What about those homeless shelters where really poor people live together on a day-to-day basis because it’s cold outside and they haven’t been able to figure anything else out? Because I know people who fit into all of these categories- while I choose to live alone- even though I can’t afford to- because that’s what I want to do- while simultaneously being just as sexual as I damn well please! Which must be ok because I don’t LIVE with anybody!

      I even saw a tv interview in the last month with 3 middle-aged straight women who’d decided to buy property together and live together because that’s what was working for them- which of course was amazing to the tv reporter- and which all flies in the face of reason if you think a life-long nuclear relationship between 2 people of opposite genders is the only kind there is and the only kind you get to have.

      Maybe one day stupid humans will actually grow up… but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. posted by Houndentenor on

    The only reason we are talking about this now is that (1)we have a pathetic excuse for a news media in which reporters talk about a court ruling they clearly haven’t read and (2) a hysterical right wing that will go off to ridiculous extremes based on (1). We are no closer to legal polygamy that we were a week ago. The only difference is that a ridiculous and obviously rarely if ever enforced law pohibiting unmarried cohabitation. Utah was the only state with such a law. You can now live with as many people as you want (within whatever local housing laws will allow), but you can still only be married to one of them. The coverage of this case reveals that 99% of modern “reporters” are either morons or liars. (I suppose they could be both.) How embarrassing for our country that this is how we get our “news” these days.

    I will say this however. I don’t have much interest in the polygamy debate. I don’t really care much one way or the other. But if people opposing polygamy want to stop it they need to come up with better arguments than the ones against gay marriage, especially the Biblical one because there’s polygamy throughout the Bible. Where do people think Mormons got the idea to do it in the first place? The anti-polygamy crowd have a head start this time. Perhaps they will be more capable of logic and reason than the anti-gay bigots.

    • posted by J. Bruce Wilcox on

      Please don’t construe this as correcting you (since I was born and raised in a Mormon community in northern Utah) because the biblical inclusion of polygamy is the Mormon reference point… but historically- after early Mormon’s relocated (were driven out of Illinois) to the territory that later became the state of Utah- there was a war that Mormon’s sent a bunch of men to fight in- and after the fact- the Mormon’s in the Salt Lake valley found themselves with too many women and too few men- and so they took on polygamy to fix this problem. They had to make polygamy unlawful in order to gain statehood- later on. But some- BECAUSE of the biblical reference point- refused to give up the practice and went underground.

  3. posted by Don on

    Having served in the press corps earlier in my career, I can attest that they were morons in the 90s and its been going downhill since. couple that with incentives leaning toward readership and “viral” gossip more and more, this is what we get.

    I have remained astounded for more than a decade that Wolf Blitzer is the Walter Cronkite of CNN. He is a spectacularly low-watt bulb. He fails to grasp the simplest of issues and regularly betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how government works. And yet, there he is in the central seat of a major news network. Slag MSNBC or Fox all you want. At least they don’t have the likes of Wolf or Candy Crawley.

  4. posted by Jorge on

    So you say people are misrepresenting the facts. Then let the case and debate be about polygamy, I say.

    Let the case be about the right to worship as one chooses and follow the dictates of one’s own faith, which includes the ordering of marital relationships–though civil rights come first even in marriage.

    Let the case be about the right to make deeply personal decisions about companionship, family, and sex, without interference, though not without disapproval.

    Let the case be about the right, for those who out of exclusion or ignorance turn to Satan’s way, to try their hardest to live it God’s way. Let Man’s Way step away from the divine question and focus on protecting society and defending the aggrieved.

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