Sister Wives

Nagging legal question: Will polygamy become the next same-sex marriage?

Nagging legal question: Will polygamy become the next same-sex marriage?

Future-gazingjournalists take note: The question above is the lede of an article in the April edition of First Things magazine.

Author John Witte Jr. devoutly hopes the answer is no.

Witte, the noted director of Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, presents that viewpoint at length in “The Western Case for Monogamy over Polygamy” (Cambridge University Press). The issue arises due to the gradual legal toleration of adultery and non-marital partnering that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell opinion last June that extended such  liberty to same-sex marriage.

The high court’s wording leaves open whether polygamy laws still make sense. This is “becoming the newest front in the culture wars,” Witte writes, and legalization may seem “inevitable” after Obergefell. We've had federal district court rulings supporting religious polygamists that Utah is appealing at the 10th Circuit. The case involves a family from the “Sister Wives” cable TV show that has helped make polygamous families seem less offensive and more mainstream-ish.

Witte writes that aversion to homosexual partners has been based historically on religious teaching, but rejection of polygamy is quite different. Polygamy occurred in the Old Testament (and usually demonstrated resulting ills and family strife). But it was opposed by the non-biblical culture of classical Greece, and in modern times by Enlightenment liberals on wholly secular grounds. (For more on biblical and Mormon history, see this piece by the Religion Guy.)

Witte observes that multiple mates are the pattern among “more than 95 percent of all higher primates,” and yet human beings “have learned by natural inclination and hard experience that monogamy best accords with human needs.”

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