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Why Gay Marriage is Like Polygamy
Progressive Populist
by Nathan Newman
March 15, 2004

When conservatives discuss the horrors of gay marriage, they usually jump to the slippery slope of other outrages that will emerge, from bestiality to polygamy.

Skipping the sheep for a second, equating polygamy with degeneracy raises a few issues. I generally think of polygamy as a sexist arrangement, but then, I doubt that is the main conservative complaint about it.

And does the US really want to pass a Constitutional Amendment declaring a popular Islamic form of marriage invalid? This does seem like a rather inopportune time-- as we are supposedly promoting tolerance in muslim societies -- to declare only Christianity-approved forms of marriage acceptable.

The Historical Assault on Mormons: But the attacks on polygamy should evoke a more historical American shudder that ought to make conservatives think twice before equating their intolerance of gay marriage with intolerance for polygamy.

Because however you feel about polygamy, the historical assault on it within the United States should shame everyone. When the Mormons began establishing their religious enclaves in the East, they were attacked and harassed so badly that they had to flee to desolate Utah

But Utah was not allowed free determination to set its own rules for marriage. Instead the US Congress passed a series of laws of escalating assault on Mormons to destroy the practice:

·  In 1862, Congress enacted the Morrill Act, making bigamy a felony in order to stop Mormons from practicing polygamy. The Supreme Court upheld the law in Reynolds v. United States in 1879.

·  In 1882 Congress passed the Edmunds Act making "bigamous cohabitation" a misdemeanor which, along with a jail sentence, would bar a person from serving on a jury, voting, or holding public office. This led to 1,300 Mormon men being jailed and disenfranchised under the law in the 1880’s.

·  In 1885, the Idaho territorial government passed the "Test Oath Law". All voters were then required to swear that not only didn’t that practice plural marriage but that they didn’t believe in any organization which advocated it.  Essentially being a Mormon, whatever your actions, disenfranchised every believer from voting.

·  Finally, in 1887 the U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act. This law disincorporated the Mormon Church and seized the church’s property, with the exception of buildings used exclusively for worship.

When the Supreme Court in 1890 upheld this near economic liquidation of the Mormon church as constitutional, the head of the Mormon Church claimed to receive a revelation that polygamy should be banned by the church.

A Slippery Slope: So in order to preserve marriage as that of "one man with one woman", the US government systematically led a criminal and economic assault on a religion and essentially at a point of a gun, forced its religious leaders to recant a core part of their religious beliefs.

I may not personally be that fond of this belief in polygamy, but the assault on the Mormons, along with the assaults on native american worship in the same period, rank as the worst legally-sanctioned violations of religious worship in our history.

So the comparison of conservative repudiation of gay marriage to the repudiation of polygamy may be quite apt. The history of the latter shows the danger of one narrow definition of how to arrange our most intimate relationships being imposed by the national government.

The slippery slope is very real, but the slope is one of repression and violations of civil liberties to enforce a national gay marriage ban against the wishes of states that will increasingly wish to support civil unions and, yes, gay marriage in coming years.

And not surprisingly, the fight over gay marriage is encouraging renewed litigation on the right of offshoot Mormons to challenge the ban on polygamy. There is at least one active lawsuit where three Utah adults are seeking to enter into a plural marriage.

The Separation of Marriage and State: The real solution may be the disestablishment of marriage, where people will not be "married" with state sanction, but will be able to apply for whatever visitation, contract, or other marriage-related rights for any specified configuration of relationships they wish.  The key will be to bundle these rights in clear systems of civil unions that people may apply for, whether they be married, daughter and mother jointly raising a child, or same sex partners.

We will see out of the coming debate what the best solution will be, but the story of the assault on the Mormons in the 19th century should warn us that trying to impose a single national standard of marriage is the wrong one-- a slippery slope to repression, hatred and violations of our core civil values of liberty.


Nathan Newman is a labor lawyer and longtime community activist. Email or see

Posted by Nathan at March 15, 2004 09:21 PM