If gay marriage is legal, what about polygamy?
That question was a hot topic among pundits and columnists during this week's Supreme Court hearing on Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage. Many thought-leaders believe that if the Supreme Court case directly or indirectly expands the definition of marriage to include same-sex partners, the legalization of polygamous marriages would logically be next on the agenda.
Former Cincinnati mayor and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell claimed on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" that gay marriage would lead to polygamy. "[M]aking a decision based purely on love is putting us down a slippery slope," Blackwell argued. "What about the person who loves two women and wants to engage in polygamy?"
In an appearance on MSNBC, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council claimed that if government determined "people ought to be able to marry who they love," it would set America up to be overrun by polygamous immigrants who "immigrate to this country from a country that allows multiple spouses."
A CNN.com commentary co-authored by Harvard law professor Robert P. George, Rhodes Scholar Sherif Girgis and Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation warned that if the Supreme Court finds that marriage is "simply about recognizing bonds of affection or romance," then "the increasingly common phenomenon of group ('polyamorous') partnerships" could be recognized as a marriage.
The topic of polygamy even found its way into the Supreme Court hearing, itself. In her questioning of former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked: "If you say that marriage is a fundamental right, what state restrictions could ever exist?"
Sotomayor went on to wonder if the state could place "restrictions with respect to the number of people [that could marry each other]." Hopefully one day soon the answer to that question will be, "No, the government can't place restrictions that prevent consenting adults from entering into whatever type of marriage they want, whether its straight or gay, monogamous or polygamous. Period."
Awareness of polygamy is reaching new heights in America, largely as the result of recent television shows including HBO's "Big Love" and the TLC reality series "Sister Wives," which feature polygamist families.
"Sister Wives," the best-known television show featuring polygamy, allows viewers into the home (and, in more recent seasons, homes) shared by Kody Brown, a fundamentalist Mormon, and his four wives -- and their 17 kids.
The show films the lives of five adults who made the decision to willingly enter into a polygamous marriage, and a throng of apparently happy, healthy, well-adjusted and well-educated children. As far as anyone can tell, the Browns' actions do nothing to harm their children, their community or society.
After watching a few episodes of "Sister Wives," it's hard to argue that the government should be able to dictate what kind of relationship consenting adults should be allowed to have, whether it's monogamous or polygamous.
Opponents of polygamy looking for religious texts or heritage to defend their claims that polygamy is immoral or improper won't find much help. In fact, the sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam all contain passages that appear to endorse taking multiple wives.
The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Torah share a number of mentions of polygamy. Most versions of the story of Moses indicate that he had two wives. The Quran recommends taking several orphaned women as wives. Currently, under Sharia law, Muslim men may take up to four wives.
If the most common religions in America encourage polygamy, why should government ban it?
Others who oppose polygamous marriage point to Warren Jeffs, the former leader of a break-away cult called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as an argument against polygamy. Jeffs exploited the idea of religiously mandated polygamy to rape minors, encourage incest, arrange marriages and hold unwilling participants captive. But Jeffs' disgusting and despicable acts occurred as a result of his abuse of power in the context of a religious sect, not as a byproduct of polygamy.
There's no evidence that polygamists who choose to enter into plural marriage of their own accord are any more likely to rape a minor, commit incest or hold people hostage than people in traditional marriages who entered their unions as willing adults. The problem is the cult, not the polygamy.
In his response to Justice Sotomayor's question regarding polygamy, Olson responded, "You've said in the cases decided by this Court that the polygamy issue, multiple marriages raises questions ... with respect to taxes, inheritance, child custody, it is an entirely different thing."
Issues related to taxes? That's an argument against plural marriage?
Olson's reference to taxes illustrates the very problem with government involvement with marriage in the first place. Rather than the very intimate, personal and often religious union that marriage is intended to be, states have turned marriage into equal parts tax shelter, opportunity to extort money through fees and licensing requirements, and binding government contract. Wow, how romantic.
Rather than dictating which type of marriages should be legal and who can marry whom, the government should get out of the marriage business entirely. Marriage should be dictated by love, not government.
For those who fear that government renouncing its role in marriage could lead to plural marriages, there's an easy solution: Don't become a polygamist.