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Harris Sherline: What’s Wrong with Polygamy Among Consenting Adults?

Plural marriage is common around the world but shunned in the United States

Customs around the world vary in many ways — everything from table manners and diet to attire and education, lifestyle in general and, of course, marriage, including polygamy. In matters of marriage and cohabitation, in the good ol’ United States of America being married to more than one spouse at the same time is illegal, even when it is sanctioned by one’s religion, as is the case with certain Mormon sects or Muslims.

The history of polygamous marriages in the Mormon religion dates back to Joseph Smith Jr., Mormonism’s founding prophet, in 1883 in Ohio. It was outlawed by the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in 1862, which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln and was banned by the mainstream Mormon Church in 1890 and is now grounds for excommunication.

If polygamy is OK in other countries, where it is accepted by certain religions, such as Islam, why isn’t it also approved in America? Perhaps more to the point: Why is polygamy illegal in the United States when it is perfectly legal in most jurisdictions to cohabitate with as many people as one might like? Can a man live with more than one woman if they are not married, or vice versa? The answer is, in general, yes. Furthermore, in some states, it has been or is possible to be married without benefit of clergy, a judge or some other government official. Such unions are generally known as common-law marriages.

Common-law marriage is recognized in 16 states or jurisdictions — specifically, Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and the District of Columbia.

Nine of these states recognize only common-law marriages that are contracted within their borders, and five have “grandfathered” those that were established before a certain date. New Hampshire recognizes such marriages only for purposes of probate, and Utah recognizes only those that have been validated by a court or administrative order.

In 2008, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that recognizing Sharia law in Great Britain was not only inevitable but also desirable, arguing that “secular law must be modified to accommodate religious sensibilities and that Muslims should not have to choose between the diametrically opposed alternatives of cultural or state loyalty, that they should be free to decide in which jurisdiction they can have certain ‘carefully specified matters’ decided.”

The archbishop did not explain how he would deal with the conflicts that might arise between Sharia and secular or Christian-based law. I suppose he would leave that to the society at large to resolve, but it’s not difficult to guess how the Brits might react to one law for those who are Christians and another for Muslims. Sharia law, of course, permits men to have more than one wife, while women can be married to only one man.

In the United States, there are still a few places where polygamy is practiced, albeit illegally. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported: “Texas authorities ... indicted (Warren Jeffs) the leader of a polygamous sect ... on charges of felony sexual assault on a minor (not polygamy), the first criminal charges to stem from a massive raid on the group’s West Texas compound.”

“The media kept saying, ‘Polygamist leader, polygamist leader,’” Mark Henkel of TruthBearer.org noted. “The case actually involved incest and the arranged marriage of a girl with her 19-year-old cousin. There wasn’t anything (that) had to do with polygamy. (Jeffs) wasn’t called an incest leader. He wasn’t called an underage-marriage leader. He was called a polygamist leader.”

Henkel, who estimates that there are 100,000 polygamists in America, believes American laws are hypocritical: “Someone like a Hugh Hefner will have a successful television show with three live-in girlfriends, and that’s all OK, and he’s making great money, and that’s all fine and great entertainment. But suddenly, if that man was to marry them, then suddenly he’s a criminal. That’s insane!”

University of Georgia professor Patricia Dixon, who thought polygamy exploited women, conducted a study and concluded that “it was not about men exploiting women, but that it is female centered.” After living with different polygamous communities for years she was surprised to discover that polygamy is “female-centered. The women are the ones who are benefiting.”

Plural marriage is common around the world. In the United States, most get married in religious ceremonies but keep quiet about it because what they do is illegal.

“The families we met wonder why what they do is illegal,” Dixon said. “Clearly it’s wrong if an older man arranges marriages of young kids, but when adults choose to live this kind of life, why is that evil?”

When they hear the word “polygamy,” many people think of fundamentalist Mormons living in cults, but the truth is that there’s lots of polygamy in America that has nothing to do with the Mormon Church.

Religious leaders generally agree that polygamy is wrong, but Henkel counters, “If they’re saying that’s immoral, they’re calling the greatest heroes in the Bible ... immoral! ... saying that Abraham, with his three wives, was immoral. Jacob had four wives. David had seven known named wives before Bathsheba.”

African Israelite Prince Ben-Israel, who has four wives, calls plural marriage a civil-rights issue: “Who is this government that’s in somebody’s bedroom? ... It was illegal for me to marry a white woman at one time. ... It was illegal for me to vote at one time. And if I had accepted somebody else’s definition of what was right and wrong, I would still be riding in the back of the bus.”

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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