Equal Rights Fights

If We Support Gay Marriage, Should We Support Plural Marriage?

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Plural marriage is a religious freedom, and banning it represents a violation of equality — or so goes the argument from the attorneys representing Winston Blackmore and Jim Oler, two Canadian members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who are on trial for polygamy. And to defend their clients (in a case that some expect could reach Canada’s Supreme Court), they’re going to piggyback on the nation’s clearance of gay marriage, which eliminated the “traditional” view that marriage should be between one man and one woman. And, I argue, they’ve got a case.

Gay rights activists in the U.S. and Canada have lobbied endlessly for equal treatment under the law (our northern neighbors have been more successful). That means having a two-person union, no matter which genders make up that union, be recognized as full-blown marriage, subject to the same rights and privileges (and opportunities to divorce!) the law provides.

What Blackmore, Oler, and other plural marriage supporting Mormons want, however, is an exception: Not just equal marriage rights for people in two-person unions, but equal marriage rights for any person, no matter how many other persons he or she chooses to wed.

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By most standards, that’s definitely not a “traditional marriage.” But who are we, or any government, to say what constitutes one family’s healthy relationship? If the case can be made that two gay guys or girls are entitled to equal marriage rights, effectively debunking the idea that “traditional marriage” is an “institution” worth upholding, then why not one man and two women? Or a marriage with three wives and no husband?

Traditional marriage supporters argue only marriages between one man and one woman are healthy and provide the proper atmosphere to raise children.

Our community has called bullshit on that argument, insisting there’s no reason to think changing the gender in a union makes a bit of difference. So does that mean we draw the line there, at the definition of marriage that hinges on two people, and keep others from changing the number of people they want in their union? If we say marriage must remain between just two people, aren’t we engaging in the same type of equal rights discrimination we accuse of conservatives?

The problem with Blackmore and Oler’s case, however, is that they’re not just accused of plural marriage — Canada’s Criminal Code outlaws “any form of polygamy” or “any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage” — but that their multiple brides are underage girls forced into arranged marriages. And that’s where they lose all credibility. We’re no longer talking about religious freedom; now we’re talking about the rape of children, and there’s no law or moral argument to sway me there.

But if I’m going to sit here and demand full marriage equality for gays and lesbians, I would feel hypocritical if I then stopped there, defining marriage the way that was convenient to me, and not realizing that, hey, not everybody sees things from my worldview. Plural marriages can be home to loving relationships, healthy child rearing, and prosperity. So long as polygamy doesn’t involve trafficking in unwilling young girls, I’m pretty fine with how anyone chooses to love.

(The irony, of course, is that the argument is based on Canada’s legalization of gay marriage, something the Fundamentalist Church isn’t exactly supporting.)