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February 26, 2020

Marriage Debate Becomes One Over Polygamy

A Utah bill decriminalizing polygamy has roots in the fight over same-sex marriage.

A bill seeking to decriminalize polygamy — passed by the state Senate of conservative Utah, of all places — has reignited the debate over marriage in the United States.

Though not legalizing polygamy, the bill would reduce the penalty from a felony (with a maximum sentence of five years in prison) to a minor civil infraction, with a fine of $750, or community service. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Deidre Henderson, was approved unanimously by the state Senate, and an amended version was approved by a state House committee this week.

The bill has set off an interesting debate between conservatives. One side sees this as the inevitable result of the Supreme Court’s legal redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples. The other sees this as a relatively minor change that appropriately reduces the penalty for polygamy, which in some instances is harsher than what accused rapists receive.

Both sides have valid points.

In 2015, the Supreme Court upended thousands of years of human history and centuries of U.S. law when it unilaterally struck down the marriage laws of dozens of states, ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that laws limiting marriage to man/woman relationships were unconstitutional. In doing so, Justice Anthony Kennedy and the majority declared that traditional marriage laws were driven by homophobic “animus” rather than based in reason and the collective wisdom of human experience. The ruling made the issue about governmental and societal validation of the romantic feelings of adults, rather than a legal and social framework to protect the interests of children and society.

Though same-sex marriage advocates ridiculed such claims at the time, the logic used in support of their cause unquestionably opened the door to the potential legalization of polygamy. In fact, many conservatives argued the Court’s ruling in Obergefell made polygamy inevitable.

After all, if legal marriage is about validating romantic relationships, then how could one logically argue the relationship between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, should be legally ratified, but not the relationships between a man and two women, or five women? If all that matters are that those involved be consenting adults, how does one logically defend same-sex marriage but not polygamy? Or incestuous relationships, so long as they are consenting adults?

As Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his Obergefell dissent, “Although the majority randomly inserts the adjective ‘two’ in various places, it offers no reason at all why the two-person element of the core definition of marriage may be preserved while the man-woman element may not. Indeed, from the standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions, which have deep roots in some cultures around the world.”

From that standpoint, it was just a matter of time before polygamists started arguing for legalization; just days, in fact.

Other conservatives see this as an isolated matter that is less about legalizing polygamy than addressing a draconian disparity in criminal sentencing. They correctly point out that the Utah bill does not legalize polygamy; it simply decriminalizes it. Polygamy, therefore, is still illegal in all 50 states. And according to recent Gallup polling, more than 80% of Americans oppose polygamy.

Then again, in 2004, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court made it the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. As a result, voters of dozens of states passed laws specifically defining marriage, including liberal bastions like California and Oregon. In fact, less than six months after the Massachusetts ruling, 11 states passed such marriage laws.

Yet just over a decade later, the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, and two years later legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, with five leftist justices invalidating the votes of tens of millions of Americans, along with millennia of history.

Realistically, the damage to the sanctity of marriage began decades ago with increasing acceptance of no-fault divorce, cohabitation, and adultery. Same-sex marriage and (potentially) polygamy are just the latest assaults on the sacred institution.

Unless and until marriage is restored as a sacred relationship between man and woman, for the purpose of bringing children into the world in stable, loving families, these aberrant variants of authentic marriage will continue to sow confusion and discord.

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