Skip to main content

It's time to reconsider polygamy

By Mark Goldfeder
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 2337 GMT (0737 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

Editor's note: Mark Goldfeder is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, senior lecturer at Emory Law School and adjunct professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law.

(CNN) -- Polygamy is back in the headlines.

Last week, a federal judge in Utah struck down part of the state's anti-polygamy law as unconstitutional, although he kept the ban on possessing more than one marriage license at a time. Fans of the "Sister Wives" reality TV stars, who filed the suit, are rejoicing in the news.

At the other end of the spectrum, TLC debuted its newest docuseries, "Breaking the Faith," which tells the dark story of women and children trying to escape from the practice.

Mark Goldfeder
Mark Goldfeder

Another lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice alleges that polygamous clans are secretly running the show in Utah and Arizona townships, manipulating the political process from behind the scenes. And in Texas, the Attorney General's Office is inching closer to seizing a massive polygamous ranch.

Across the country, angry citizens are calling for the government to follow its own laws and crack down on polygamy.

Meanwhile, celebrities like Akon and various news outlets encourage people of all ages to reconsider plural marriage.

What competing narratives about polygamy in America reveal is that whether or not a white-washed, clean-cut version of plural marriage could in theory legally exist, in practice it does not, and what states like Utah, Arizona and Texas actually have is an unregulated, dangerous and harmful situation, where the strong prey upon the weak and helpless.

The time has come to address this discrepancy. When the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in U.S. v. Windsor in June, opening the door to federal recognition of same-sex marriage, it also set the stage for a discussion of plural marriage.

DOMA defined marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." While DOMA obviously prohibited same-sex marriage (by requiring that a marital unit consist of a man and a woman), it also enshrined the prohibition against polygamy, by requiring that such a union be between only one man and one woman.

Even before Windsor the Supreme Court had declared morals-based legislation invalid, renewing interest in polygamy. But in calling DOMA definitions unconstitutionally restrictive, the court, perhaps unwittingly, also struck down the federal numerical limitation in a marriage, immediately re-opening the possibility of plural marriage at the state level. Activists have taken note, and are only getting louder.

But despite the strength of any legal arguments, and the voices of a few, plural marriage is still a crime, and public opinion remains strongly in favor of the ban.

Studies show that it tends to create abusive relationships antithetical to family values. Co-wives who lose favor are pushed aside for new and often younger rivals; left to fend for themselves and their children with dwindling resources and support, they are exploited by emotionally detached husbands.

Advocates say the harms are not intrinsic to the practice; they do not support underage or coercive relationships. They challenge us to crack down on abuses in general, irrespective of marital model.

Polygamy might not be inherently evil, which is why we need purposeful debates. But unlike traditional marriage, it has never been effectively regulated and so people, especially women and children, have suffered. The real beauty of last summer's ruling is that it not only opened the door for polygamy, it also established a framework.

Same-sex relationships that were only decriminalized in earlier cases were finally given legal recognition in Windsor. If there is to be a change in status quo -- if we as a nation decide that polygamy cannot or should not be illegal -- then going straight from criminalization to full recognition is both the correct legal answer and necessary to assuage public fears.

Decriminalizing polygamy would only make abuses even harder to catch. But following Windsor's lead and allowing these relationships to be recognized could instead bring them into the light.

Recognition would enable law enforcement to crack down on abuse; allow an independent civil authority -- a town clerk or justice of the peace -- to express concerns about and even refuse to approve an inappropriate marriage. It would help prosecutors overcome the evidentiary hurdles inherent in prosecuting related crimes. Unlike decriminalization, legalizing and regulating polygamy cuts to the heart of policy concerns.

Morals-based legislation has been unconstitutional since 2003's Lawrence v. Texas, and so we cannot just continue ignoring the polygamists' clamor for acceptance. But the practical policy solution -- awarding those formerly banned relationships rights, and with those rights accompanying duties and responsibilities, which will be monitored -- was only handed down last summer.

A clean-cut version of American polygamy does not currently exist, but under Windsor, perhaps, we could actually build it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Goldfeder.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT