I Do Not Watch “Sister Wives,” but…What’s Wrong with Polygamy?
Let me begin with what should be a wholly unnecessary disclaimer: I am opposed to polygamy, “plural marriage,” “open marriage,” bigamy, etc.!
Now that that’s out of the way…
Today I read that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the case against a state law that criminalizes polygamy. The case has to do with the family featured on the television series “Sister Wives” (which I have never watched).
According to the news article, in that particular state, where many self-described polygamists live, it is a criminal offense to claim someone as one’s “spiritual spouse” and live with her (but I assume it would also apply if he were a “him”) in a sexual relationship while married to another.
Now, I’m sure I have not described that state’s law perfectly, but that is its essence according to the AP news report.
Also according to the news report the “Sister Wives” family has felt it necessary to move in order to avoid prosecution. The man is legally married to one woman but claims several others as his “spiritual wives” and lives in a marriage-like relationship with all of them. I assume he would like to be legally married to all of them.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
To those readers who would appeal to women’s rights to condemn all polygamous relationships, I note that recently, in the county where I live, a woman was being held in jail for bigamy. “Multiple marriage” can work both ways although, admittedly, it usually is a man with multiple “wives.” Also, as anyone can see on the many television programs about polygamous families (so I am told), the “wives” adamantly claim that their involvement is purely voluntary.
Recently I read an op-ed column in my local newspaper by a very intelligent man who frequently writes such opinion pieces. He argued that, while he respects people’s right to hold religious beliefs, he opposes religious beliefs based on scripture or tradition playing any role whatsoever in law. That is, he more than implied, all laws should be based solely on secular reasoning and not at all on religion. I assume, given his argument about secular reasoning and law, that he would add “cultural tradition and sentiment” to “religion” as inappropriate reasons for laws.
I wrote a letter to the editor responding to his column simply asking what purely secular, “rational” argument he would give to support laws that favor monogamy over plural marriage or even criminalize polygamy (when all the partners in the plural marriage are involved voluntarily and no coercion is used to keep them involved). My letter was not published.
Now, I personally find polygamy, bigamy, plural marriage and “open marriage” repugnant. But setting that “gut feeling” aside, I ask myself what basis I recognize for government opposing them and favoring monogamy in marriage?
To head off one avalanche of responses, let me say this: I can easily see why government should extend certain legal and financial rights to only two people in what I call a “civil union.” Imagine seven people—one man and six women—having those rights of, for example, shared property and decision-making for the others in calamities. I do wonder how countries that permit plural marriage work that all out. They must not have quite the same “partner rights” as we in the U.S. have with regard to civil unions/marriages.
But putting that all aside, my question is not only about law; it’s also about ethics. Why should we, as a secular, pluralistic society, favor monogamy and punish plural marriage in whatever ways we do that in various places (with criminal law or simply social stigma)?
Let me put it this way: Imagine the jailed woman I referred to above and assume with me (for our purposes of this discussion) that no financial fraud was involved in her alleged bigamy with two husbands. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume both her “husbands” knew about the other and were “okay” with the arrangement. Assume, hypothetically, perhaps, that the three of them lived together in a house and let everyone know that they had a “plural marriage.” In this living arrangement, including sex, they followed state and local laws to the letter except having two marriage licenses from the state or county. All that being the case, why should she be arrested? By that I mean, why should there be any law against that purely voluntary living arrangement and why should the government treat any of them as criminals?
Such behavior, such living arrangements, such “marriages,” are perfectly legal in many countries around the world. Why not here—given the qualifications and conditions I have described and will continue to describe?
Yes, of course, you could say “Because it’s against the law to have two simultaneous and functioning marriage licenses.” That’s my question: Why should it be against the law—so long as all other laws governing civil unions/marriages are being observed and obeyed?
In other words, the hypothetical three people in this (possibly imaginary) case study have gone to an attorney and established a contract that explicitly obeys the financial laws and other laws that give special rights to married couples. For example, only two of them share property and they file income tax returns as individuals (not “joint”), etc.
So, my question is, why should it be the case that one or more of them should be arrested and punished? Why shouldn’t laws be altered to extend the right to more than two people to marry each other—as a group (given the conditions I described above)?
What purely secular reason can be offered to support either laws against such plural marriage or social stigma against it? (Just feeling it’s repugnant or appealing to religion or tradition no longer counts in this matter of the ethics of marriage—except for some. I’m not asking them.)
Back to the reported case study with which I began and a question arising out of it. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider a case against a state law criminalizing plural marriage. Assuming that state law is based solely on ethics guided by religion and/or tradition, and assuming that state law could be adjusted to forbid any and all kinds of coercion, and assuming it could be adjusted to allow only two people in a plural marriage to have special rights such as property sharing and decision-making for each other in cases of illness or emergencies and filing tax returns jointly, why should it not be struck down and plural marriages be permitted everywhere in the U.S.?
Again, I do not support “plural marriage,” “open marriage,” polygamy, bigamy, etc. But I have trouble thinking of any purely secular reason, divorced entirely from my religious or cultural tradition, for opposing the right of more than two people to be legally married—given the conditions and qualifications I have cited.
Can you? If so, what are they?
*Footnote: Do not ask why the people in my hypothetical case study want to have two marriage licenses from the state. Their answer could be simply “We want the government and society to recognize our relationship, however non-traditional it may be, as true marriage.
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