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Paula Bolyard

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January 14, 2013 - 9:00 am

All of this makes for salacious reality show drama and fascinating legal theorizing, but when we strip all of that away, we have real women, real boys and girls, and a husband and father. There are important moral and ethical questions we must wrestle with, regardless of the outcome of the court case and whether or not the Browns stay together and manage to pay their credit card bills.

It’s rather fascinating that we’ve tumbled down this slippery slope so quickly, isn’t it? In a 2004 Slate article, Dahlia Lithwick argued that it was ludicrous to suggest that legalizing gay marriage would lead to legalized polygamy:

But one can plausibly argue that there is a rational basis for states to ban polygamous and polyamorous marriages in which there has been historical evidence of an imbalance of power, coercion (particularly of young girls), and an enormous financial burden placed on the state. None of these arguments can be made against gay marriage. … The right to sexual privacy [Supreme Court Justice] Kennedy finds in the line of cases starting with Griswold v. Connecticut, the Connecticut birth-control case from 1965, is an intimate right, between two consenting partners. The court calls these “the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.” The desire of a group of seven people to marry simply does not intuitively fit into that binary sphere of intimacy.

But when Rick Santorum debated students on the sanctity of marriage during the presidential primary last year, trying to ascertain whether “happiness” and the right to privacy should be the only standards for permitting marriages, he was booed and heckled by students making the same arguments Lithwick dismissed out of hand in the Slate article less than a decade ago. “Back in the day” activists and sympathizers of all stripes used to be shocked and offended by the slightest “comparison”—as they pejoratively labeled it—of gay marriage to polygamy, even when detractors merely attempted to point out that the same arguments being made for gay marriage (privacy, freedom of religion, equal protection) would eventually be made for polygamy.

The Slate article does raise some important concerns about polygamy. It explains why all states ban the practice: “…there has been historical evidence of an imbalance of power, coercion (particularly of young girls), and an enormous financial burden placed on the state.”

Dr. Thomas West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College, touched on some of these concerns in writing about our country’s historical ban on polygamy:

In spite of this sincere religious belief, the Supreme Court ruled that Mormons were not exempt from the law forbidding multiple wives. Polygamy was made a crime in Utah “because of the evil consequences that were supposed to flow from plural marriages.” The Court wrote that a “free, self-governing commonwealth” presupposes monogamy, upon which society may be said to be built. . . . In fact, according as monogamous or polygamous marriages are allowed, do we find the principles on which the government of the people, to a greater or lesser extent, rests. . . .

…[P]olygamy leads to the patriarchal principle, and which, when applied to large communities, fetters the people in stationary despotism, while that principle cannot long exist in connection with monogamy.

The Republican Party platform of 1856 had condemned “those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy, and Slavery.” Both were viewed as enemies of liberty. Polygamy was thought to be the antithesis of the proper equality between man and wife. The moral message of polygamy is that one woman is not good enough for a real man. The Supreme Court pointed out, correctly, that polygamy was practiced elsewhere in the world only under despotic governments in Asia and Africa…

…The U.S. Constitution guarantees free exercise of religion, but not for religious practices that, in the words of the Supreme Court in 1890, are “repugnant to our laws and the principles of our civilization.

It is no coincidence that the countries with legalized polygamy are overwhelmingly Muslim and/or patriarchal societies and that the countries that allow it almost without exception only permit polygyny (one husband with multiple wives) and not polyandry (one wife with multiple husbands). Even in some countries that ban the practice, allowances are made for Muslims practicing Sharia law. For example, in India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, polygamy is illegal in all forms, “except for Muslims.” In Mauritius, polygamous “marriages” are not recognized, though Muslim men are permitted to “marry” up to four women. Unfortunately, the women do not enjoy any legal rights or status as wives.

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