Polygamy: Why is it illegal?

Kody Brown, a member of a renegade Mormon sect and a star in the reality-TV series Sister Wives, has filed a lawsuit challenging Utah's anti-bigamy laws.

If consenting adults create a marriage of more than two people, said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, do we have any right to stop them? Current law says we do: Nine states specifically ban polygamy, and 49 have bigamy laws that can be used to prosecute “plural families.” Now Kody Brown, a member of a renegade Mormon sect, has filed a lawsuit challenging anti-bigamy laws in his home state of Utah. Brown came to the attention of state authorities last year after he and his four “spiritual wives” starred in a reality-TV series called Sister Wives. Facing a criminal investigation, all five were forced to flee Utah, with their 16 children in tow. Now they want to come back, and Brown is making a “perfectly reasonable” argument: He isn’t demanding that Utah change its law or recognize his “spiritual” marriages, since he’s legally married to only one of his wives. “He’s just asking to be let the hell alone.”

Utah can’t afford to leave polygamists alone, said Scott R. Senjo in The Salt Lake Tribune. People who reject society’s norms, past experience shows, often deem laws irrelevant as well, and are prone to engage in welfare fraud and tax evasion. Steeped in a patriarchal worldview, polygamists are more likely to indulge in statutory rape, child abuse, and incest. If Brown isn’t stopped, said Brian Raum in Human Events, the implications for marriage could be grave. As we social conservatives once warned, the legalization of same-sex marriage in some states has now opened the door to demands that government recognize other “socially destructive conduct,” including polygamy.

We’ve heard these arguments before, said Brown’s attorney, Jonathan Turley, in The New York Times. But my client is asking only for privacy—nothing more. In our society, it’s not uncommon for men or women to have multiple sexual partners, or to have children with these partners. Yet because Brown has stated a commitment to all his spiritual wives, rather than simply running around on his first wife, “it is considered a crime.” Civil libertarians are afraid to embrace his cause, fearing it undermines the case for same-sex unions. But consenting polygamists deserve the same right to privacy as gay people. The Browns aren’t accused of hurting their kids or coercing minors. They just want the right to “create a loving family according to the values of their faith.” Why not live and let live?

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