What Does Canada’s Polygamy Decision Mean for Polyamorous Pagans?

On Wednesday the Supreme Court of British Columbia upheld Canada’s law banning the practice of polygamy (multiple-partner marriages). This legal battle was somewhat unique in that a legal alliance of fundamentalist Mormons and a polyamory advocacy group (the CPAA) stood together to challenge the law. In addition, Pagan families and clergy in Canada have filed affidavits of support in the decriminalization case there. The reason for this somewhat unlikely fellowship was made clear during the trial when the B.C. Attorney General’s office made very clear that polyamorous families would be treated like polygamous families in the eyes of the law.

When multi-partner, conjugal relationships are like “duplicative marriages,” Jones said they are criminal regardless of whether the individuals are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.Although he said ‘duplicative marriage’ need not be “exhaustively defined in advance,” Jones said all conjugal relationships involving more than two people are criminal if they go beyond “mere cohabitation” and have some form of imposed consequences related to entering or remaining in the relationship.”

However, while Chief Justice Robert Bauman upheld the law, he did seem to carve out exceptions for informal multiple-partner couplings, and provided a “road-map” for future challenges.

Robert Wickett, the lawyer for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the polygamous community in Bountiful, said the B.C. Supreme Court decision actually offers a “road map” for would-be polygamists on how to avoid prosecution. […]  “[Judge Bauman] lays out for prosecutors and defendants what is lawful and not lawful,” Mr. Wickett said. “He has not said that three people living together is unlawful, but only [that] three people living together in a form of ‘marriage’ that had a sanctioning event or a religious ceremony. And so people looking at that definition, then, you could imagine how they [could] structure their affairs to stay within his definition.”

The Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association says it is “relieved” at the exceptions in the ruling, but points out that polyamorous couples who have had a “sanctioning event or religious ceremony” could still be targeted by the polygamy law.

“Many polyamorous women, as well as men, have multiple partners, and polyamorists think men and women have equal freedom to define their relationships. The CPAA says the decision will relieve most polyamorists but, alarmingly, will harm those who make certain formal commitments. “The decision still criminalizes a segment of the polyamorous community if they have a marriage ceremony,” said Zoe Duff, a CPAA director and spokesperson. Duff also represents one of the five polyamorous families who provided evidence to the court. The decision clarifies that she is living legally with her two male partners.”

Considering how many Canadian Pagan polyamorous families have had public marriage/handfasting ceremonies this interpretation of the law places them on the same legal footing as a polygamous Mormon (or Muslim) household. This, in essence, forces consensual multi-partner arrangements to stay in the closet, and avoid anything that might be interpreted by a “sanctioning” event within their community. Thus, monogamy as a relationship structure is privileged above all others, even though the judge in this case acknowledges that this arrangement limits personal autonomy and religious freedom. As Jonathan Korman told me in my last piece on Paganism and polyamory, consensual multiple-partner arrangements present a fundamental challenge to the status quo that isn’t so easily swept under the rug.

“Polyamory constitutes a direct confrontation with questions about how we define our relationships. It says that we should not accept that our loving relationships must conform to a single standard. From that rejection of the cookie-cutter relationship standard follows hard personal and cultural questions about how we want relationships to work. Cultural conservatives find these questions frightening; without the standards they know and recognize, they fear that we would have no ethical standards at all. But many other people feel that the conception of marriage offered to them does not serve their needs but cannot imagine alternatives. Perhaps same-sex marriage has opened the door to more people thinking about these questions, creating an opportunity for a broader cultural conversation about the cultural and legal implications of polyamorous families. We may see a growing fascination with poly families coming, as people respond to them as a way to talk about the questions they encounter in their own relationships.”

This ruling seems to be something of a punt by Chief Justice Robert Bauman, all but acknowledging that this won’t be the end of the matter in his decision, while trying his best to create an understanding of the polygamy law that will only affect “harmful” manifestations of the practice. But his reliance on ceremony as a threshold for illegality creates more problems than it does solutions, and I have little doubt that we will see this issue back in the courts once again sometime soon.

Unleash the Hounds! (Link Roundup)

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Polygamy Decriminalization and Polyamorous Pagans

Our modern society is both fascinated and repulsed by the practice of polygamy (multiple-partner marriages), particularly the practices of fundamentalist Mormons, who allow polygyny (one husband, many wives), and who have been given both sympathetic (Big Love, Sister Wives) and critical (any number of documentaries and news reports) treatment by mainstream media. While the custom of monogamy has been called “ridiculous” by some, and perhaps even unnatural by others, non-monogamous relationships have been generally been portrayed as either lurid fantasy, inherently abusive, or yet another step on a slippery slope towards cultural ruin (particularly within the context of the same-sex marriage debate). Recently, Mormon polygamists have been fighting to decriminalize what they see as a consensual relationship model, arguing that allegations of abuse within these structures should be dealt with separately from the issue of multiple-marriage. In Canada a high-profile decriminalization case is currently before the British Columbia Supreme Court, and now the multiple-partner family behind  Sister Wives has filed suit to challenge Utah’s law against bigamy.

“Attorney Jonathan Turley told the Associated Press that he believes the family’s case represents the strongest challenge to the criminalization of polygamy ever filed in federal courts. It builds on a 2003 case in which the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ sodomy laws as a violation of privacy. “We only wish to live our private lives according to our beliefs,” Brown said in the attorney’s statement.”

As this issue over polygamy, and whether or not it should be decriminalized, heats up, some Pagans are wondering how these developments will affect our interconnected communities, and whether our general acceptance of non-monogamous relationship models will cause reverberations we can’t predict. While polygamy is not a common practice within contemporary Pagan religions, polyamorous groups can often be found. Polyamory is a consensual multiple-partner relationship model that rejects the patriarchal, and sometimes abusive, forms of traditional polygamy that most people envision (polyamory widely values transparency and honesty, along with what’s known as “compersion”). Several prominent Pagans are polyamorous, including Oberon and Morning Glory ZellRaven Kaldera (author of “Pagan Polyamory”), Phaedra Bonewits, and her late husband, the author Isaac Bonewits. Around 30% of poly families identify as Pagan according to one survey conducted in 2002. So as polyamory gets drawn into the polygamy decriminalization battles, it seems likely that poly Pagans will play a role, whether chosen or not. Already, Pagan families and clergy in Canada have filed affidavits of support in the decriminalization case there, and Craig Jones, lead attorney for the B.C. Attorney General’s office, made very clear that polyamorous families would be treated like polygamous families in the eyes of the law.

When multi-partner, conjugal relationships are like “duplicative marriages,” Jones said they are criminal regardless of whether the individuals are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. Although he said ‘duplicative marriage’ need not be “exhaustively defined in advance,” Jones said all conjugal relationships involving more than two people are criminal if they go beyond “mere cohabitation” and have some form of imposed consequences related to entering or remaining in the relationship.”

In talking with several polyamorous Pagan individuals for this article I found some apprehension and mixed emotions about being seen as allied with polygamous Mormon groups. While some, like Natalie Smith, think that if “people on the ‘outside’ were to see two opposite groups like Mormons and Pagans working side-by-side towards a common goal, it is more likely to help someone think.” Others, like Jonathan Korman, feel conflicted about making common cause with polygamists.

“I can conceive of legal efforts which serve both groups’ interests, but I have difficulty imagining it politically. The movements have different cultural aims and have different relationships with the society at large. People in each movement tend to find the practices of the other distasteful, making any alliance fraught. Both groups would hesitate to focus only on tactics which support both groups. Both groups may fear that it will compromise their efforts if the public foresees benefits to the other group.”

That said, all the polyamorous Pagans I talked to supported decriminalization, and were in favor of creating a legal framework for legal multiple-partner marriages. Storm Faerywolf, an initiate of the Feri tradition of Witchcraft, noted that “adult individuals should have the right to enter into whatever contracts they choose,” while Pagan podcaster and metaphysical shop manager Devin Hunter emphasized that “in a perfect world this would not even be a question. The rights of a minority group should never be in the hands of the majority. Plural marriages should absolutely be legal within the system, and at the very least it should become decriminalized.” While none of the individuals I talked to held much credence with the slippery slope arguments put forward by figures like Archbishop Timothy Dolan, one respondent, David Shorey, did point out that the “dominant paradigm still revolves around a polar perspective,” and “those who have adopted the polar perspective will see two men or two women fitting into that.” In short, any relationship that exceeds two partners breaks the mold many are comfortable with.

Shorey’s musings on the “polar perspective” seems to tie into some further comments made by Korman, who broached the question of if this issue of multiple-partner marriages touches on a much larger question of the current legal limitations in defining relationship models outside what some may be accustomed to.

“The law currently supports a very limited vocabulary of personal relationships with enforced rights and obligations. We have legal rules for blood relations, for adoptive parents, and for married couples, but almost no other legal support for personal relationships. I believe that many people sense that this gives us too limited a vocabulary for dealing with the complexity of people’s lives but lack a framework for thinking about it. Many people who reach for same-sex civil unions as a compromise may feel open to more sophisticated ways of thinking about how the law addresses our relationships.

Polyamory constitutes a direct confrontation with questions about how we define our relationships. It says that we should not accept that our loving relationships must conform to a single standard. From that rejection of the cookie-cutter relationship standard follows hard personal and cultural questions about how we want relationships to work. Cultural conservatives find these questions frightening; without the standards they know and recognize, they fear that we would have no ethical standards at all. But many other people feel that the conception of marriage offered to them does not serve their needs but cannot imagine alternatives. Perhaps same-sex marriage has opened the door to more people thinking about these questions, creating an opportunity for a broader cultural conversation about the cultural and legal implications of polyamorous families. We may see a growing fascination with poly families coming, as people respond to them as a way to talk about the questions they encounter in their own relationships.”

As this conversation moves forward, can polyamorous Pagans bring more complexity, nuance, and new ideas to the table? So far, the lion’s share of attention has been on contrasting monogamy with abusive forms of polygamy, but shouldn’t there be room to consider that there are other models of multiple-partner families, and that blanket laws against polygamy also impact their lives as well? In defining polyamory, the poly Pagans I talked to described it as “the admission that honesty is more important than monogamy, “ that “each individual member among the relationship shares in responsibility equally,” and is “focused on the individual and their ability to have mutiple loving relationships.” This seems a far cry from the abusive compound narrative often presented when talk of decriminalizing polygamy comes up, and should not be ignored as this debate continues to gain attention.

Whether Pagans wish it or not, the coming polygamy decriminalization fight will have ramifications that will need to be addressed. Many Pagan clergy members bless multiple-partner marriages, many polyamorous families are Pagan, and in Canada, it has been made clear that distinctions between polygamy and polyamory won’t be recognized should the relationships evolve beyond mere “cohabitation.” While the Utah “Sister Wives” case may be something that Pagan communities in the United States can largely avoid, that is no promise the issue will remain dormant, especially if the Canada legal case ends up in the Canadian Supreme Court and results in polygamy being decriminalized. Many of the polyamorous Pagans I talked to said that the time for more vocal activism on this issue was now, for Devin Hunter “the time has come to become even more vocal, “ while Natalie Smith, when asked about being vocal, said that “the road to equality lies through the fields of visibility.” The question is whether Pagan leaders, clergy, and organizations will be willing or able to join them on that road.

The Future of Unitarian-Universalism and other Pagan News of Note

Top Story: The Religion News Service is featuring a story (alternate link) on the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and whether the shrinking (162,800 members, down 1,400 from last year) creedless denomination can endure for another fifty years.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wezp1W2HKlU

“For 50 years the UUA has conducted a virtually unprecedented experiment: advancing a religion without doctrine, hoping that welcoming communities and shared political causes, not creeds, will draw people to their pews. Leaders say its no-religious-questions-asked style positions the UUA to capitalize on liberalizing trends in American religion. But as the UUA turns 50 this year, some members argue that a “midlife” identity crisis is hampering outreach and hindering growth. In trying to be all things to everyone, they say, the association risks becoming nothing to anybody.”

Modern Pagans are a vibrant part of the modern UUA, and the article by Daniel Burke starts off the piece with a Pagan member of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore leading a service.

“A recent Sunday service at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore ended with an apology. Laurel Mendes explained that religious doctrine had been duly scrubbed from the hymns in the congregation’s Sunday program. But Mendes, a neo-pagan lay member who led the service, feared that a reference to God in “Once to Every Soul and Nation” might upset the humanists in the pews.”

While I’m pleased to see UU Pagans get noticed, I’m less happy with the fact that Burke seems to use this moment to underscore how far the UUA has drifted from its Christian roots. As for the future of the UUA, Burke cites an internal document from 2005 that says the denomination needs to create boundaries, to overcome its “reluctance to proclaim religious tenets.” Current UUA president Rev. Peter Morales sees “amazing opportunity” in the growing number of “nones,” people who don’t claim adherence to any particular faith, the “spiritual but not religious” demographic, but can outreach of this sort compensate for reports that the UUA is losing 85% of its children?

For many years the UUA has served as a haven and home for Pagans, especially in towns and cities that lack an established Pagan community. Many Pagans have fond feelings towards the UUA despite some institutional bumps in the road recently, with some prominent Pagans, like Margot Adler and Isaac Bonewits, having played significant roles within the Unitarian-Universalist sphere. But if those predicting the disappearance of the UUA are correct, if the next 50 years will see their slow fade-out from American life, then modern Pagans invested in the benefits of this denominational body will have to tackle the question of what the UUA provides us, whether we can replicate it independently of the UUA if need be, and what role groups like CUUPs and independent UU Pagans will play in the near future.

In Other News:

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!


Browse Our Archives