Posted By Eric Ethington on December 21, 2013
**This article originally appeared on The New Civil Rights Movement
Are polygamy and marriage equality the same fight? Since my article a few days ago about a Utah federal judge decriminalizing the majority of that state’s ban on polygamy, my inbox has been flooded with passionate and varying opinions. So let’s dive deeper into this.
First some background. In Utah Judge Clark Waddoups’ ruling, it’s important to note that he did not completely legalize polygamy, the plaintiffs weren’t even asking him to. What was struck down as unconstitutional were Utah’s laws criminalizing cohabitation between married couples and other single individuals. It is still illegal for polygamous families in Utah to seek multiple marriage certificates.
The well-known attorney representing the polygamous family in the case, Jonathan Turley, based his arguments heavily on the historic 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, where the Supreme Court struck down state bans on sodomy. That ruling had nothing to do with marriage or relationships, but rather drew upon the notion of Americans’ right to privacy—that governments had no right to regulate what goes on between consenting adults in the privacy of their homes.
So on privacy grounds the fight to legalize polygamy and the overarching fight for LGBT equality are unquestionably linked. Just as in the Lawrence v. Texas decision, when intimate relations between LGBT persons were decriminalized, intimate relations between polygamous families has been decriminalized (in Utah, at least). Whether it be the intimacy between two men, two women, or plural families, a nation founded upon the principles of freedom cannot impede upon the private lives of its citizens.
But the similarities between the two struggles do, perhaps, diverge legally at that point. In the case of marriage equality, LGBT families are fighting for equal access to the same protections and laws that benefit straight couples. In the case of plural families, the fight is not for equal access to existing laws, but rather the creation and formation of a new kind of marriage—requiring the creation of not only new marriage laws, but also estate, tax, death and all other related areas of code. (I say “new” in that plural marriage laws do not currently exist in the United States.)
One of the primary points of interest in the feedback I have received was my use of the word “choice,” in describing polygamous relationships. Believe me, I did not choose the word lightly. LGBT people around the world have struggled for decades to help our neighbors understand that we do not choose our sexual orientations or gender identities, just as no one chooses to be heterosexual or cisgender. But do innate characteristics such as orientation, gender identity, or race also apply to polygamous communities? I don’t see it. True, we do not choose the people we fall in love with, nor does the fact that we may already be in a relationship preclude the possibility of falling for someone else. But choosing to form a relationship with multiple people is just that, a choice—just as the decision two men or two women or a man and a woman make to form a relationship is a choice.
Some may believe, and certainly many who have contacted me believe, that plural marriage is a civil right. Honestly, I don’t have the answers there, and not knowing anyone personally in a polygamous family likely holds me back from understanding the movement better.
But regardless of personal feelings, or the debate over whether polygamous marriages are a legitimate civil rights struggle, the fight is different from marriage equality. There is certainly crossover around the issues of privacy, and the right to do what you please at home. But at the end of the day, polygamy is not pushing for equal access to existing laws. Which fight is more important is up to you (or perhaps neither are more important), but I have yet to see any arguments convincing me that they are the same.
I am not unsympathetic to the plight of plural families seeking simply to be left alone. We all deserve to be able to live the way we choose. But directly correlating the fight for marriage equality to the fight to legalize plural marriage is a legal and logical leap I cannot make in my own mind.
Follow author Eric Ethington on Twitter @EricEthington