by Joe Shea
June 2, 2010
IF GAY MARRIAGE, WHY NOT POLYGAMY?
BRADENTON, Fla., June 25, 2011 -- Imagine a marriage in which one partner is a former heterosexual male who has declared himself a woman, augmented his breasts but kept his male genitalia, and gotten married to a formerly heterosexual man who has removed his male genitalia and had them replaced with a vaginal canal, but has not enhanced his breasts.
Such a marriage is now legal in New York and five other states, but a marriage in which one man takes two consenting wives, or one woman takes two consenting husbands is not. Gender is not an issue in marriages in New York and five other states, but plurality is.
Is there a qualitative difference between the three kinds of marriages? Do some offend less and some offend more? Is one closer to community norms than another?
How can a court permit the former and forbid either of the latter without calling into question a flimsy kind of discrimination that has its roots in gender and sexual mores that courts have consistently questioned? How can one cultural taboo fall without others being disestablished?
Those may be the most important questions Americans have to answer in the wake of the adoption of marriage equality laws under the New York State constitution. New York being the cultural avatar that California has proved not to be, its example is likely to quickly spread to other states, particularly since the New York law empowers those who are offended - certain churches and ministers, mainly - to lawfully decline to host or perform them.
Human marriage has taken many forms around the world from primitive to advanced cultures. In addition to same-sex marriages (which in the United States sometimes also confer adoption rights), there are marriages of many to many (so-called group marriages) and polygamous (man to more than one wife) and polyandry (a woman to more than one husband). They stand in contrast to bigamy laws, which like most marriage laws and customs are born of cultural and religious norms, outside of "objective" logic.
But if the kinds of marriages contemplated in the first paragraph are approved, why would it be so wrong for me to remarry my first and second wives (who wouldn't have me, I assure you!), both of whom I still love dearly? If the first kind of marriage is not offensive to public morals, why would my polygamous marriage be? And how could a court tell me one the first is right and mine is wrong?
I have not been an active advocate for marriage equality or polygamy, but as the years passed and my own values changed, I have not been opposed to them in principle, and even while I feel some personal distaste, I don't believe my tastes should decide the fate of others' lives. I believe that religion, not government, is the proper institution for debate about the moral worth of any marriage and divorce. These are intensely personal decisions that become complicated when children are a part of the mix, when assets are up for division, and when pension rights have to be conferred. Those are areas for state lawmakers to consider.
The fact is that with the acceptance of gay marriage, the tide has turned. It will be a matter of a just a few years before the U.S. Supreme Court openly declares such marriages legal in all states, I suspect. Yet it will likely be many years more before plural marriages are adopted by any of the states or the high court. In the meantime, we as Americans in general will be in a state of moral limbo, and since "limbo" is a religious construct I better explain it.
In the Catholic church, "Limbo" is where unbaptized children go, not to suffer but to wait. It's also the destination of those who have not committed sins that must consign them to Hell, like murdering innocent people. The idea of Limbo is that you sit there and wait for God to pluck you from it after you have suffered not in fires as in Hell but in the denial of gaining the presence of God.
Limbo, in the sense of a suspension between Heaven and Hell, mirrors the moral ambivalence we have to feel, if we are morally charged (i.e., if the presence of something evil or wrong offends us), toward the pantheon of choices concerning marriage. It's beyond argument that in certain cultures that have a wealth of supporting cultural, moral and juridical laws, each one of these many forms of marriage is practical, consenting and acceptable. Who are we to argue?
This stance may be one many Republicans feel they should adopt if, first, they support either Jon Huntsman or Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith at one time permitted polygamy (many women) but not polyandry (many men; second, if they want to treat all kinds of marriages equally, not just gay marriages; or, finally, they want to accommodate the growing Muslim presence in America that accepts polygamous but not polyandrous marriage.
For Democrats, who don't seem married to any cultural or moral stance about the institution, a proposal to legalize other forms of marriage is likely to be met with the all-purpose word of approval, "whatever."
Some may see no compelling logic in such an imposition upon the Republican value-set, yet as the Ohio flows to the Mississippi and the Mississippi to the sea, it is inevitable that these questions be raised, debated and resolved - and if New York's marriage law is any guide - accepted in a spirit of equanimity in pursuit of equality.
AR Correspondent Joe Shea won the landmark free speech case Shea v Reno. Write him at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org