Polygamy joined same-sex marriage in the national spotlight this week as a Utah federal court ruling triggered renewed controversy over what constitutes marriage. Gay rights activists and plural marriage advocates have long debated with the religious community over their rights to enjoy the same conjugal benefits as monogamous, straight couples. Some see the court’s decision as a resounding victory for the recognition of non-traditional unions. However, others express reservations about the wisdom of redefining marriage, and some faith-based organizations voice disappointment in what they consider a misuse of religious freedom.
The ruling stems from the case Kody Brown and his four wives. The family is known from TLC’s cable show, Sister Wives, and they lost their home in the heat of the controversy over their plural marriages. The controversy triggered a renewed scrutiny into the constitutionality of Utah’s polygamy laws. After two years of deliberation and testimony on both sides of the debate, U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups extended his previous rulings in the case to strike down the last remaining section of the law that made it a criminal offense to cohabitate without the legal covering of marriage. The Browns’ lawyer, Jonathan Turley, explained in his blog after the ruling that that provision had been used against polygamists as they could not legally marry, much as in the case of couples who seek same-sex marriage unions. With this decision, Judge Waddoups dismantled the sole remaining legal injunction against plural marriages, affirming his stance against prejudice, hostility and discrimination against polygamous families, declaring such restrictions unconstitutional.
Turley posted Brown’s statement, acknowledging that although many disapprove of polygamous families, they hope that others will extend the same respect for their personal, religious beliefs as they extend to those of different faiths than their own. The Browns are members of the Apostolic United Brethren Church, an offshoot of the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), popularly known as the Mormon church. Therefore, they share a history of strife over the question of polygamous marriage that hearkens back to their roots at the founding of the LDS church by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in the latter part of the 19th century. The original church has long since abandoned the official sanction for the practice of polygamy by early church leaders. However, the Apostolic branch holds to a more fundamental view, retaining multiple marriages as part of their accepted lifestyle.
A 2012 study from the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy entitled, Marriage in the Minds of the Next Generation, found that today’s generation of young people have an eclectic blend of progressive and traditional perspectives on sex and marriage. The National Organization for Marriage uttered disappointment over the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court and the denial of their motion to intervene on behalf of Oregonians in support of the defense of marriage amendment. They asserted that the people, not the judiciary system should resolve the issues of defining marriage and expressed regret that the voters’ voice on this policy issue is being silenced.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission maintains that history has already shown over and over that polygamous marriage triggers hurt for women and children, adding fuel to the renewed fires of controversy in the wake of the recent ruling legalizing plural marriage in Utah. Emotions run high on both sides, as they do in the same-sex marriage debate. Nonetheless, Moore makes no apologies in mourning the decay of the solemnity of marriage, lamenting the elasticity that the court’s polygamy ruling brings to stretch the definition of marriage to the point of hollow insignificance.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser