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Since the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, Americans have enjoyed unprecedented freedom in their lifestyles and private relationships. The decision held that states could no longer use the criminal code for social engineering, dictating the most intimate decisions of citizens in their choice of partners and relations. …

Utah and eight other states make polygamy a crime, while 49 states have bigamy statutes that can be used to prosecute plural families. While widely disliked, if not despised, polygamy is just one form among the many types of plural relationships in our society. It is widely accepted that a person can have multiple partners and have children with such partners. But the minute that person expresses a spiritual commitment and “cohabits” with those partners, it is considered a crime.

One might expect the civil liberties community to defend those cases as a natural extension of its campaign for greater privacy and personal choice. But too many have either been silent or outright hostile to demands from polygamists for the same protections provided to other groups under Lawrence.

The reason might be strategic: some view the effort to decriminalize polygamy as a threat to the recognition of same-sex marriages or gay rights generally. After all, many who opposed the decriminalization of homosexual relations used polygamy as the culmination of a parade of horribles. In his dissent in Lawrence, Justice Antonin Scalia said the case would mean the legalization of “bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality and obscenity.”

Justice Scalia is right in one respect, though not intentionally. Homosexuals and polygamists do have a common interest: the right to be left alone as consenting adults. Otherwise he’s dead wrong. There is no spectrum of private consensual relations – there is just a right of privacy that protects all people so long as they do not harm others.

Others have opposed polygamy on the grounds that … some polygamous families involve the abuse or domination of women. Of course, the government should prosecute abuse wherever it is found. But there is nothing uniquely abusive about consenting polygamous relationships. It is no more fair to prosecute [polygamists families] because of abuse in other polygamous families than it would be to hold a conventional family liable for the hundreds of thousands of domestic violence cases each year in monogamous families.

Ultimately, the question is whether polygamy is allowed under the privacy principles articulated in Lawrence. The court did not state exclusions for unpopular relationships. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the case “does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter” but rather “two adults who, with full and mutual consent from each other, engaged in sexual practices common to a homosexual lifestyle.” …

Civil libertarians should not be scared away by the arguments of people like Justice Scalia. We should fight for privacy as an inclusive concept, benefiting everyone in the same way. Regardless of whether it is a gay or plural relationship, the struggle and the issue remains the same: the right to live your life according to your own values and faith.

Jonathan Turley
Law Professor at George Washington University
(Abridged from his column in the New York Times)

When a woman leaves an abusive monogamous marriage, one never reads, “Woman Escapes Monogamy.”

When a monogamist man embezzles money from his workplace, one never sees the caption, “Monogamist Guilty of Embezzlement.”

Articles begin with titles such as, “Polygamist Cult Leader …”, as if polygamists somehow owned a monopoly on cult leadership; after all, have you ever seen “Monogamist Cult Leader …” as an attention-grabbing headline?

As is evidenced by past newspaper headlines, they would apparently have us believe that monogamist men aren’t quite the scoundrels that polygamist are!

Polygamist Investigated for Welfare Fraud
Polygamist Arrested for Rape
Polygamist Charged with Sexual Assault
Polygamist Suspected of Drug Abuse
Polygamist Questioned for Murder
Polygamist Charged with Spousal Abuse
Polygamist Indicted on Kidnapping
Polygamist Found Guilty of Abuse

With such crimes being so exclusively perpetrated by non-monogamists, there is little wonder that polygamy is despised by Western culture.

Clyde L. Pilkington, Jr.

Q: Was polygamy accepted during the first century? How common was it in the first century?

A: The best record we have, from a traditional Jewish perspective, on first-century life would be the Talmud, the first stages of which were published around the year 200. Any legal matter pertaining to marriage very clearly accounted for the possibility of more than one wife – e.g. the Talmud discusses how to divide an estate between multiple wives, or how levirate marriage works if there’s more than one wife. There is one mention of a limit of 4, just as a practical matter of how much, um, “physical attention,” a normal guy can be expected to provide to all these women.

Jewish Life & Learning
Questions about Polygamy in Jewish Law and Culture
Isaac E. Moses, Editor

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November 2011
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