RSS
Don't blame gay marriage for the decriminalization of polygamy
Some conservatives are saying, "We told you so."
 
Reality television was apparently ahead of the curve.
Reality television was apparently ahead of the curve. (Facebook/Sister Wives)

Last week, a federal judge in Utah effectively decriminalized polygamy in the state, in response to a challenge brought by Kody Brown, the polygamous husband who stars in the reality television show Sister Wives. And now conservative politicians and pundits are arguing that the ruling is the inevitable result of a "slippery slope" created by the growing support for gay marriage and LGBT rights in general.

"Sometimes I hate it when what I predict comes true," humblebragged former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who has previously argued that legalizing gay marriage would lead to legal polygamy and incest.

Jonathan S. Tobin at Commentary wrote that "[the] ruling merely illustrates what follows from a legal trend in which long-standing definitions are thrown out." And Andrew T. Walker at National Review insisted that the ruling "can't be viewed in isolation from the events that preceded it, especially the debate over same-sex marriage and the larger effort to undo the norms of family."

In other words, some conservatives are using the decriminalization of polygamy in Utah as an opportunity to say to supporters of marriage equality, "We told you so."

"Today, those ridiculed for predicting a 'slippery slope' argument stand vindicated," Walker declared.

But the legal link between gay marriage and polygamy is not so clear-cut. First of all, the ruling by Judge Clark Waddoups centered on the religious freedoms of Kody Brown and his family, who are Mormon. That has nothing at all to do with gay marriage or LGBT equality.

Indeed, no cases involving marriage equality were cited in Waddoups' ruling, even though the Supreme Court this year struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.

"What impact did this year's gay marriage ruling have [on the polygamy ruling]?" ask Jim Dalrymple II and Trent Nelson at the Salt Lake Tribune. "It appears none."

What was cited in the ruling was the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, which threw out anti-sodomy laws that had effectively criminalized same-sex relations. Waddoups, who was appointed by George W. Bush, cited the case as precedent that the government cannot infringe on "private consensual sexual privacy."

While Lawrence was a major victory in the LGBT equality fight, this is a separate argument. All that decriminalizing homosexuality and decriminalizing polygamy share is the underlying principle that "the government cannot intrude on what happens in adults' bedrooms so long as it's consensual," writes Zack Ford at ThinkProgress.

In fact, one could easily flip the "slippery slope" argument in this case, arguing that conservatives are suggesting it would be better to turn back the legal clock to when consenting adults could be thrown in jail for same-sex relations. The majority of Americans would definitely not support that.

And the "slippery slope" view gives too much credit to the LGBT movement. Waddoups also mentioned Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 Supreme Court case that guaranteed married couples the right to use contraception. Why not argue that the slippery slope began there?

More importantly, though, maybe we should stop viewing the decriminalization of polygamy as a heinous thing. The vast majority of Americans — hardly just conservatives — do not believe polygamy should be legalized: Just 18 percent support legalization, while 90 percent think it is morally wrong. This is likely because polygamy is so foreign to most Americans that it seems "unnatural" at best, and conjures up images of harems of abused underage women at worst.

However, Mark Goldfelder at CNN writes that "polygamy might not be inherently evil," and goes so far as to suggest that legalization could make polygamy even more morally acceptable. "Recognition would enable law enforcement to crack down on abuse. It would help prosecutors overcome the evidentiary hurdles inherent in prosecuting related crimes."

Maybe the slippery slope is that Americans will come to realize that polygamy is not as awful a practice as it is perceived to be. Adam Winkler at The Huffington Post writes that the latest decision "should force us to ask the question: Do these bans further validate public policy, or are they, like so many other laws regulating sex and marriage, built on fear and misunderstanding of people who make different choices about their intimate relationships?"

 
Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week