As gay marriage has gained acceptance across the country, its opponents have often claimed that the inevitable next steps would be recognition of bigamy, polygamy, bestiality and incest. So when a judge struck down part of Utah’s anti-polygamy law last week, those critics were quick to say they told us so.
But that’s not what happened at all. On the contrary, the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups makes it clear that neither fundamentalist Mormons nor anyone else has an inherent right to multiple marriages. The state of Utah can continue to limit one marriage license to two people, under the same rules it has always followed, just as every other state does.
But the problem with Utah’s law is that it didn’t just outlaw true polygamy, which is the practice of claiming more than one legal spouse at a time. It also prohibited cohabitation by unmarried people with multiple sexual partners.
Thus the famous cohabiting fundamentalist Mormons in the reality series "Sister Wives" were considered by the state to be violating the law even though they were not officially married; they moved to Nevada to avoid the possibility of prosecution, and filed suit to challenge the Utah law. Although star Kody Brown and his four female mates like to call themselves married, the only official marriage is between Brown and his wife, Meri.
But if all five want to live together, that’s their business, as Waddoups wisely concluded. Consenting adults should be able to engage in personal relationships without fear of arrest or criminal charges. That’s a far cry from the state legitimizing such relationships by providing marriage licenses for them or conferring on them any of the perks of marriage, such as joint tax returns or spousal benefits.
Waddoups also concluded that Utah’s law infringed on personal religious rights. That’s not because fundamentalist Mormons have a special right to multiple unofficial marriages but because the state was singling out such relationships for prosecution. The judge said that more secular forms, in which a man might have a legal wife and family but also a mistress, for example, were not generally prosecuted.
Of course, the heinous abuses recently associated with certain fundamentalist Mormon groups are well documented: coerced marriage, underage unions, child molestation, domestic abuse and the expulsion and abandonment of young boys. But there are existing laws that can and should be invoked against these crimes.
Utah’s attorney general has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling. We hope he doesn’t. His office has every right to enforce the state’s anti-polygamy law, but it should abandon efforts to interfere in personal and unofficial cohabitation arrangements.