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The marriage of many

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 11, 2005

"Polygamy rights is the next civil rights battle." So goes the motto of a Christian pro-polygamy organization that has been watching the battle over homosexual "marriage" rights with keen interest.

"We're coming. We are next. There's no doubt about it, we are next," says Mark Henkel, founder of www.TruthBearer.org.

Traditional values groups often argue that legalizing same-sex "marriage" is a "slippery slope" -- that if marriage is redefined to allow homosexuals to "wed," it will be further redefined to allow other unions, including polygamous ones.

Homosexual rights leaders and their allies insist that the "slippery slope" argument is a rhetorical dodge. It's a "scare tactic," says Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson.

"What homosexuals are asking for is the right to marry, not anybody they love, but somebody they love, which is not at all the same thing," Brookings Institution scholar Jonathan Rauch has written.

South Dakota lawmakers this year proposed the first constitutional marriage amendment that specifically outlaws unions of "two or more" persons.

The measure's author, South Dakota state Rep. Elizabeth Kraus, said the ban on polygamy is intentional.

After Canada legalized same-sex "marriage," its government "launched a study to look at the ramifications of polygamy," Mrs. Kraus said. "Once you open the marriage door to anyone other than one man or one woman, you haven't begun to slide down the slippery slope. You've already hit rock bottom."

Voters will decide on the measure next November.

Also this year, a New Jersey appellate court expressed concerns about a right to polygamy in its 2-1 rejection of same-sex "marriage."

"The same form of constitutional attack that plaintiffs mount against statutes limiting the institution of marriage to members of the opposite sex also could be made against statutes prohibiting polygamy," New Jersey Appellate Judges Stephen Skillman and Anthony J. Parrillo said in their ruling in Lewis v. Harris.

"Indeed, there is arguably a stronger foundation for challenging statutes prohibiting polygamy than statutes limiting marriage to members of the opposite sex" because unlike homosexual "marriage," polygamy has been and still is condoned by many religions and societies, they wrote.

Judge Donald G. Collester Jr., who dissented in the case, said his colleagues exaggerated the "specter of polygamy."

The homosexual plaintiffs "do not question the binary aspect of marriage; they embrace it," Judge Collester said. Moreover, he said, despite myriad briefs filed in the case, "no polygamists have applied" for marriage rights.

But can the polygamy issue be so easily dismissed?

Polygamous families, polygamy rights activists, civil liberties lawyers, libertarians and family scholars say no. They agree that polygamy is a legitimate family form that should not be interfered with by the government.

"Indeed, why not polygamy?" asks Colby College professor Cheshire C. Calhoun, who has written about the merits of allowing both same-sex "marriage" and "gender-neutral" polygamy.

Polygamy resistance

Polygamy has been outlawed in the United States since Colonial days, and despite the notable detour of America's home-grown Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it seems likely to remain so.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected polygamy in its 1878 decision in Reynolds v. United States, which said government can enforce anti-polygamy laws even if they run counter to people's religious beliefs.

Utah's Constitution outlaws polygamy "forever" and, in 2001, the state's anti-polygamy laws were upheld when Thomas Green, a fundamentalist Mormon man with five wives, was sent to prison for bigamy and related crimes.

In recent years, the federal government and 40 states have passed Defense of Marriage Acts and/or constitutional amendments that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

But two 2003 court rulings changed the legal landscape on sex and marriage: The Lawrence v. Texas decision by the U.S. Supreme Court disallows states to criminalize private sexual behavior among consenting adults, such as sodomy between homosexual men. The Goodridge decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which legalized same-sex "marriage" in that state, says "the right to marry means little if it does not include the right to marry the person of one's choice."

Taken together, these rulings appear to support a right to polygamy by consenting adults, according to pundits such as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer.

"[I]f marriage is redefined to include two men in love, on what possible principled grounds can it be denied to three men in love?" Mr. Krauthammer has asked.

However, many conservatives say legalized polygamy is a serious threat but not an imminent one.

"I think right now probably the courts would not go for polygamy, says Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel in Orlando, Fla., who fights for traditional marriage in lawsuits and supports a federal marriage amendment.

Support for polygamy rights today would be "political suicide," says Jan LaRue, legal specialist at Concerned Women for America.

Indeed, public disapproval of polygamy is 92 percent, according to a Gallup poll released in May.

However, conservatives say, legalized same-sex "marriage" was unthinkable just a few years ago and they think a battle over polygamy legalization can't be very far off.

"We've got some judicial activists all over the country, especially on the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals], who would probably be ready, willing and able to include polygamy as a constitutional right," Mrs. LaRue says.

Polygamy is 'ultrafamily'

Pro-polygamy activists are counting on time being on their side.

"Polygamy would make sense" if people didn't have knee-jerk reactions based on stereotypical information and instead thought about it intelligently, Mr. Henkel says.

Two polygamous families associated with Mr. Henkel's organization agreed to speak by telephone with The Washington Times on the condition that they wouldn't reveal their names or whereabouts.

They all said their marriage choices were logical, biblical, normal and worthy of legal recognition.

If polygamy were legal, there would be more stable families, fewer single mothers and less welfare, says "Poppa," who lives in the Pacific Northwest with "Momma," his wife of 34 years, and "Mom," a single mother who joined them in "marriage" five years ago.

Contrary to stereotypes, Poppa says, his family is self-sufficient and active in their community. All the adults work and share in household duties and the care of six children. "We pool our money and our resources and whenever one [adult] has to take off, another will watch the kids," he says.

Momma says she welcomed Mom into the family because she felt compassion for the 37-year-old single mother and knew "my husband could take care of both of us."

"He's always had more love than I could absorb," Momma says. Good polygamous men, she adds, "are not trying to create a collection [of wives]. They're trying to make sure this [single] woman has a support mechanism for her and her children."

And religiously speaking, they have no doubt they are living God's will.

"Biblically, it stands that marriage has always been more than one wife," Momma says. "It says right in the Scriptures that you've got men throughout the ages who have always taken care of more than one wife."

Says Poppa: "Polygamy is family. It's us. It's a unity and identity of a family group. ... It is the ultrafamily."

The second polygamous family also rejected characterizations of their lives as abnormal, sex-focused or prone to child abuse.

"The only difference between us and any other normal American family -- you know, that whole image of the dog, the cat, the 2 kids, two-car garage, swimming pool, two-story, three-bedroom house and a husband and a wife -- it's all the same, except it's just a husband and a wife and a wife," says the second "Poppa," who lives with "Mamasita" and "Momma" and their six children in the South.

"We're extremely pro-family, we're extremely pro-children," says Momma, who is 36 and joined Poppa, 29, and "Mamasita," 28, at their request six years ago.

They say that theirs is a harmonious, loving home -- "we're sensitive to each other," Mamasita says -- and having another adult in the house has allowed both women to share child care, go to college and get good jobs.

Issue of recognition

Decriminalization of polygamy would bring shared health benefits and other legal privileges of marriage, they say, but the bigger issue is recognition.

"People assume they have the right to look down on us or treat us badly because in a lot of people's opinions, we're just bad," Poppa says.

"We're consenting, nobody was forced," Momma says. "What I want is to be accepted as a wife. I want to be accepted as a family. I don't want to be looked down upon."

Pro-polygamy forces may look nascent in 2005, but they have more than a few supporters -- legally, academically and culturally.

Already, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 families are living polygamously in the United States, including hundreds of Laotian Hmongs in Minnesota and thousands of fundamentalist Mormons in Arizona and Utah.

In Utah, a married fundamentalist Mormon couple has filed a federal lawsuit with another woman they want to marry.

The Supreme Court's Lawrence decision should apply to consenting adults who want to engage in polygamy, says their lawyer, Brian Barnard, who argues that the trio's constitutional rights to religious expression, privacy and intimate expression have been violated.

The case, Bronson v. Swensen, was dismissed by a federal court but is being appealed, says Mr. Barnard, who adds he is also seeking a repeal of the 1878 anti-polygamy Reynolds decision.

Polygamy allies

Polygamy is supported in principle by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Libertarian Party. In a 2004 commentary in USA Today, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said anti-polygamy laws are hypocritical and that Green's 2001 bigamy conviction was "simply a matter of unequal treatment under the law."

Georgia State University professor Patricia Dixon has interviewed numerous polygamous families who live in America in three black communities -- African Hebrew Israelite, Ausar Auset Society and African American Muslim.

Polygyny, in which one man co-partners with many women, can be quite advantageous for women when it's practiced openly and with consent, Ms. Dixon concluded in her 2002 book, "We Want for Our Sisters What We Want for Ourselves."

The women in these communities probably would "really appreciate" having polygamy rights, she tells The Times. "Not having a legal license [as a second or third wife] causes a lot of anxiety."

Liberals and feminists have to be pro-polygamy because of their tolerance doctrine and belief in a woman's right to choose, which certainly includes "the right to choose polygamy," Mr. Henkel says.

The goal, therefore, is to convince conservatives, especially Christians, that "consenting adult" polygamy is biblical and valuable, both to society and to individual men and women.

Once the conservatives come around, Mr. Henkel says confidently, opposition to polygamy "will come crashing down ... like a house of cards."