- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

Will Vermont's civil-union law open the door to alternative unions, such as polygamy, in America?

Some trend-watchers say yes; that once the one-man, one-woman model of traditional marriage is broken, anything same-sex "marriage," polygamy, group marriage is possible.

"Once gay male couples with open sexual relationships or lesbian couples with de facto families are legally 'married,' the way will be open to even more imaginative combinations," Hudson Institute scholar Stanley N. Kurtz wrote in September's Commentary magazine.

"On what grounds, for instance, could the sperm donor and aging rock star David Crosby be denied the right to join in matrimony with both the lesbian rock singer Melissa Etheridge and her lover, Julie Cypher, the 'mothers' of his child?" asked Mr. Kurtz, an anthropologist who predicted that supporters of "polyamory" or group marriages, would soon seek legal recognition for their relationships.

Other trend-watchers reject such scenarios.

There's a trend toward recognizing family diversity, but the "slippery-slope argument" that same-sex "marriages" will lead to polygamous marriages "is flawed," said Dorian Solot of the Alternatives to Marriage Project in Boston.

"I think the idea that there is some kind of slippery slope here is silly," said Matt Coles, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in New York.

Blacks and interracial couples were once forbidden to marry in this country, but Utah had to outlaw polygamy before it could be admitted as a state, said Mr. Coles.

"So what our history says to us," he said, "is when we rethink the law and relationships, we do it intelligently, looking at the specific issue in front of us. Doing one thing doesn't lead to sliding down on all sorts of others."

"When gay men and lesbians seek the equal right to marry, they seek access to the same institution that the government has set up for heterosexual couples … and that's a loving, committed relationship between two people," said Ruth E. Harlow of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Moving from a dyadic or pair relationship to a poly-relationship isn't at all likely, she said, adding that "people who voice these sentiments are not giving the American people enough credit."

Polygamy is, in fact, more common historically than monogamy, said David Murray, an anthropologist at the Statistical Assessments Service (STATS) in the District.

In the last century, as countries have modernized, moved away from agricultural cultures and/or accepted Christian influences, they have "moved in the direction of the monogamous nuclear family," said Mr. Murray.

However, until the 1900s, about 75 percent of the world's 5,000 societies were polygamous "if not in practice, then at least in ideal," he said.

In the United States, polygamy is illegal, but it exists unofficially, with an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people living as polygamists in the West.

Typically, these families are Mormon fundamentalists or Christian patriarchal groups that maintain polygamy is a time-honored and scriptural practice.

The Mormon church once practiced polygamy, but officially disavowed it in 1890.

Utah law enforcement officials are cracking down on polygamous families and have charged one Utah man, Tom Green, of bigamy, criminal nonsupport and child rape.

Mr. Green, 52, who has gone on TV talk shows to talk about his multiple wives and 28 children, says he has done nothing wrong because the women are his "spiritual" wives.

It's families like Mr. Green's that some people fear will become accepted as a result of Vermont's civil-union law, which gives homosexual couples the same legal rights as married couples in Vermont.

Since July 1, Vermont has issued civil-union licenses to 340 Vermont couples and 1,099 couples from out-of-state, a spokeswoman in the Vermont Vital Records office said last week.

It is widely expected that some of the non-Vermont couples will sue to have their civil unions recognized in their home states.

If they are successful, civil unions could become legal across America, and this, warns Mr. Kurtz and others, is what paves the path for other nontraditional unions.

In October 1999, for instance, California businessman Ron Unz used this argument to persuade Californians to vote for a law to limit marriage to a man and a woman. "Legalizing gay marriages today means legalizing polygamy or group marriages tomorrow," Mr. Unz said in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In 1996, when "marriage" between homosexuals was being debated in Congress, William J. Bennett, co-director of Empower America, said that if marriage was expanded to allow same-sex unions, "new attempts to expand the definition still further would surely follow."

Canadian ethics scholar Dan Cere, who recently wrote a paper on emerging forms of male-female relationships, agrees that changing the traditional marriage model could lead to new combinations.

"If we go the route to redefine marriage, why just recognize dyadic relationships?" asked Mr. Cere. "Why not a diversity of types, multiple human intimacies? It's part of an inevitable package."

Meanwhile, "poly people" aren't necessarily eager to go legal, say women associated with such multi-partner groups.

Yes, some polyamorous people "would love to be able to legally marry more than one person," said Ryam Nearing, editor of Loving More, a publication for polyamorous people in Boulder, Colo.

"A very common form is a triad three adults who love each other and live together," she said, adding that, "they want legal marriage for all the same reasons that [homosexual, bisexual and transgendered] people do the 1,000 rights of legal marriage."

However, many "poly folks" aren't interested in legal marriages, said Ms. Nearing. These are the "libertarian types, who don't want the government involved in any intimate relationships and would prefer them to be governed by individual contracts."

This is the view of many polygamous groups, said Vicky Prunty, a former "plural wife," and director of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a Salt Lake City group that assists women leaving the lifestyle.

Polygamists "want polygamy decriminalized," but "no way" do they want it legalized, she said.

If polygamy were legalized, she explained, there would be standards and guidelines that people would have to follow. "That means that their marriages would have to be down on paper, and they don't want any kind of government intervention," she said.

So, in the end, is America going to allow poly-marriages?

"It's not clear to me that we would necessarily go down the slippery slopes just because we can," replied Mr. Murray, the anthropologist at STATS.

That said, he mused, "everywhere I look in American life, there is no slippery slope left unslid."

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