Politics & Policy

Pushing For Polygamy

Multiple marriage isn't such a distant step away from gay marriage as many pretend.

Los Angeles Daily News guest editorialist Jonathan Drober recently echoed the view popular among gay-marriage proponents that polygamy is a canard of anti-gay-marriage family groups and that legal recognition of same-sex unions in no way promotes acceptance of plural matrimony. “No one is seriously posing simultaneous multiple marriages. We plan on keeping them traditionally serial–one spouse at a time,” Drober wrote.

Perhaps he should have mentioned that to the Arizona and Utah residents who attended a town-hall meeting concerning two communities in those states a few days later.

On March 3, Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff and Arizona attorney general Terry Goddard held a joint summit in St. George, Utah, to deal with allegations of abuse, molestation, incest, and fraud coming from within the twin border cities of Hildale and Colorado City. Approximately 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) reside in the country’s largest polygamist communities and for decades (thanks to a disastrous police raid in 1953) have remained largely beyond the short appendages of local law. The government offensive on the area that was then called Short Creek turned out to be a public-relations nightmare in which the press depicted the state as a malicious invader that ripped screaming children from the arms of their parents and separated loving husbands from their devoted wives. The event was defining enough that even 52 years later Goddard made a point of opening the conference by calling the Short Creek raid a “shameful mistake” and asking polygamists present to “let the past be the past.” From that time on, both Utah and Arizona’s tacit polygamy policy remained “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Recently though, reports of child brides giving birth in county hospitals, absconders seeking legal restitution, high rates of deformity resulting from incest, and rampant welfare and tax fraud have become too great for authorities to ignore. Now, as the attorneys general’s offices seek to “build bridges” that will provide victims of the polygamist system the means to report abuse, they are making it clear they have no intention of indicting an “alternative lifestyle choice” even if it is the breeding ground for all manner of crime.

Of the more than 350 people who packed out the Holiday Inn ballroom for the two-hour public session, a large portion were practicing polygamists, and Shurtleff made it clear to them that while his office will investigate underage “spiritual marriages,” as the FLDS calls them, it will not target their personal beliefs by prosecuting multiple unions involving persons over the age of 18. This assurance came in spite of the fact that under Utah law plural marriage between individuals of any age is a felony. For Arizona’s part, Goddard echoed Shurtleff, stating, “We’re here to address a very specific focus; we’re not interested in condemning a lifestyle.” Yet when both Shurtleff and Goddard pledged to those present that “they [would] not sit back and let people commit crimes,” one polygamy opponent responded, “I’m confused, is polygamy not a crime?”

Perhaps it is a crime according to federal law, state law, and many states’ constitutions–but not according to recent court decisions that necessitate endorsement of any kind of sexual arrangement. What this woman failed to take into account is that, crime or no, multiple marriage is now being characterized as a “life choice.” And as Carol Smith of the Women’s Religious Liberties Union, a pro-polygamy group, explained, “You can’t discriminate against us because of our life choices.”

Carolyn Spinelli, who moved to the southwest from New Jersey six years ago, is not a polygamist herself, but feels that a polygamous lifestyle can be a positive option for some if fanatical FLDS leaders are taken out of the equation. “If you would just open your mind,” she said to the crowd, “polygamy is a wonderful thing.” “Believe it or not there’s a lot of happy women, and there are a lot of them here today,” said another who declined to reveal whether she was one wife in a group of many.

For the most part, these sentiments were applauded by most of the single-marriage practitioners in the room, with many claiming they showed up “to extend a hand of acceptance.” Their beef, they said, was not with the polygamists’ lifestyle, but with the strain their multiple offspring put on the public coffers. One woman offered that polygamy wouldn’t be a problem at all if the states would “cut back all this welfare and they [the polygamist parents] had to support all these children.”

Other non-FLDS residents looked to pop-culture icons to support their polygamous neighbors. Drawing the precise correlation gay-marriage supporters claim is nothing but the hysteria of bigots, one woman cheerfully used her turn at the mike to assert this bit of common logic: “If Rosie O’Donnell can adopt children and that’s legal, I mean c’mon. If two consenting adults want to have a family, three consenting adults, four… That’s fine.” In fact, the heartiest approval of the session came when one individual suggested that the best way to deal with polygamy’s legal problems would simply be to decriminalize polygamy.

On February 3, 2005, former Hildale police officer Rodney Holm argued to have his 2003 conviction for bigamy and sex with a minor overturned partly on the basis that it violated his privacy rights. Holm’s attorney Rodney Parker argued that in light of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down sodomy laws, the Utah court should find that 32-year-old Holms had a constitutional right to take his 16-year-old sister-in-law as his third “spiritual wife.” To that effect, Parker’s brief stated, “Current demographics, domestic relations law, and religious diversity all accommodate plural marriage. Popular departure from traditional marriage has made our domestic laws on cohabitation and fornication anachronistic.” A decision in this case is expected shortly.

In another Utah case utilizing Lawrence v. Texas early last year, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of G. Lee Cook, a Salt Lake City polygamist who wanted his multiple marriages to be legally as well spiritually valid. Steven Clarke, the ACLU’s Salt Lake City legal director, publicized his chapter’s endorsement of this position by stating, “Talking to Utah’s polygamists is like talking to gays and lesbians who really want the right to live their lives, and not live in fear because of whom they love. So certainly that kind of privacy expectation is something the ACLU is committed to protecting.” Ultimately, the court rejected the reasoning in this case, but the citizens of Hildale and Colorado City have not. Nor have those on the cutting edge of family law who seek to undermine marriage by opening it up to same-sex couples.

David Chambers, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, wrote in The Michigan Law Review that those who support plural marriage ought to also support gay marriage. He argued that rather than reinforcing a two-person definition of marriage, gay marriage would make society more accepting of further legal changes: “By ceasing to conceive of marriage as a partnership composed of one person of each sex, the state may become more receptive to units of three or more.” Similarly, Alternatives to Marriage Project activist and University of Utah law professor Martha Ertman noted in The Harvard Law Review that legal and social opposition to polygamy is decreasing and that increasing acceptance of homosexual partnerships is slowly (and, to her mind, rightly) resulting in the final destruction of the traditional marriage ideal.

The primary tactical difference between polygamist communities and gay-marriage activists is that the former have traditionally neither sought nor desired government recognition or even government involvement (with, of course, the exception of public assistance). But as the ideology of those on the frontlines of the gay-marriage debate trickles down to cloistered FLDS communities, they too are beginning to push for unqualified endorsement in the eyes of the law. And why shouldn’t they, now that gay couples are starting to make great strides in the same direction? They may not be progressive lawyers authoring treaties in law reviews, but Hildale and Colorado City residents certainly understand the logic of their case.

Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.

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