Polygamous Marriage: The Next Trend?

On Wednesday, Kody Brown and his four wives—the stars of TLC’s reality show “Sister Wives”—filed suit in federal court in Utah against the state seeking the decriminalization of bigamy (and by default, polygamy). The case is built upon the 2003 US Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas that decriminalized sodomy on the grounds that the state cannot interfere with the private lives of consenting adults (a.k.a., right to privacy). This current lawsuit hopes to overturn an 1878 Supreme Court decision that declared polygamy unsuitable for American society.

The lawsuit claims:

By criminalizing religious-based plural families and intimate relationships under the criminal bigamy law, Utah officials prosecute private conduct between consenting adults.[1]

In Utah, polygamy is a third-degree felony that can carry a penalty of up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

The Browns have attained fame recently as the stars of “Sister Wives,” a reality television show that follows their lives as a polygamous family. The show airs on the cable/satellite network TLC. Their marriages are considered spiritual marriages because the state will not issue marriage licenses for multiple wives. The Browns claim to be Mormons and participate in polygamy because they believe that their faith rewards those in multiple marriages with a higher place in heaven. Even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e., Mormons) disavowed polygamy in 1890, it is apparently still an issue in some sects of Mormonism, especially among fundamentalist groups.

Joanna Brooks, a Mormon scholar and author, notes that polygamy is still an open question to many Mormons. She states:

But the question of polygamy also remains wide open for millions of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worldwide. The mainstream LDS Church publicly disavowed the practice of polygamy in this life in 1890, but it has never officially disavowed the doctrine that plural marriage is required to enter the highest levels of heaven. Mainstream LDS men who are widowed and remarry continue to be “sealed” or married for the eternities to multiple wives, while mainstream LDS women may not be married or “sealed” for the eternities to more than one man. To this day, mainstream LDS communities are quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) divided on whether or not polygamy will be a fact of life in heaven.[2]

While the question of polygamy among Mormons is an interesting cultural question, there is a larger issue at play with this lawsuit. The real issue is whether or not the government will continue to redefine marriage. Even though the Browns’ attorney, Jonathan Turley, assured CNN’s John King (video available here) that the lawsuit was simply about right to privacy and not recognition of polygamous marriages, the clearly logical conclusion is that any case decriminalizing polygamy will also open the door to legalizing polygamous marriages. In fact, the lawsuit over polygamy is based upon the exact rationale that proponents of homosexual marriage are using in various states to seek recognition of their marriages.

With the recent action by the New York legislature and this lawsuit in Utah, the understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman is under full-scale attack from multiple fronts. If the Browns win their lawsuit, it will probably only be a matter of weeks before lawsuits seeking state recognition of polygamy hit the courts. They will use the same arguments that have won the day (at least in some states) for homosexual marriage. Then the next two logical steps—using the same argumentation—will be polyamorous marriages (multiple husbands AND wives) and incestuous marriages. The claim will merely be a right to privacy and marriage as a civil right. We have started down a slippery slope, and I fear the slide may be uncontrollable soon.


[1] “‘Sister Wives’ stars sue over Utah anti-polygamy law.” CNN. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/07/13/sister-wives-stars-sue-over-utah-anti-polygamy-law/.

[2] Joanna Brooks, “Sister Wives Stars File Suit to Legalize Polygamy,” Religion Dispatches. http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/joannabrooks/4852/sister_wives_stars_file_suit_to_legalize_polygamy/.

2 comments

  1. Nonetheless comparing homosexuality with pedophilia incest or polygamy is not just wrong it is outrageous. Morality means little to us as compared to polygamy incest and age in marriage unless same sex marriages are involved…This acceptance of society of a whole range of shall we say distasteful marriages is very important in countering the major argument against homosexual marriage societal displeasure.

  2. I think it is fair to make the comparison between homosexual marriage and polygamy, incestuous marriage, etc. When the government alters the historical (and I would argue biblical) definition of marriage from one man and one woman to anything else, then it opens the door to all sorts of other options. Most proponents of homosexual marriage do not support polygamy or incestuous marriage, but the same exact argumentation is used to support these other alternatives. It is a slippery slope.

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