Over the weekend, you might have seen a news story with a headline like, “Court Strikes Down Utah Polygamy Law.”
If all you read was the headline, you might assume that polygamy was once again legal in Utah. It’s not. Instead, the state has been told not to interfere in religious ceremonies that, while they may have meaning for the people who take part in them, bestow no government recognition.
Nevertheless, conservative religious groups are distraught. See, they told us this would happen once same-sex marriage became legal in some states!
“This is what happens when marriage becomes about the emotional and sexual wants of adults, divorced from the needs of children for a mother and a father committed to each other for life,” Russell Moore, top lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, told CNN. “Polygamy was outlawed in this country because it was demonstrated, again and again, to hurt women and children. Sadly, when marriage is elastic enough to mean anything, in due time it comes to mean nothing.”
The problem with Moore’s statement is that polygamy is not legal in Utah or anywhere else in the United States. The ruling makes that abundantly clear.
So what did happen? Utah had a law on the books banning two people from living together if one or both of them is already married to someone else. U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups struck down this part of the law. This in no way allows a person to have more than one legal spouse.
There are men living in Utah who insist, on a spiritual basis, that they can have more than one wife. They have a rather elastic definition of the term “wife,” using it to mean any woman who chooses to enter into a church ceremony with them. Legally, these men do not have more than one wife. A man is free to live with more than one woman, but only one of them can be his legal wife.
Some polygamist men in Utah are seeking legal recognition for all of their wives. This ruling does not give them that. The decision is just a reminder that the government has no business interfering in the types of personal and family relationships that people choose to form.
The Utah law said the following: “A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.”
Interpreted broadly, Utah’s anti-cohabitation statute could have been applied to lots of people who have no interest in polygamy. Let’s say John and Mary are married, but it’s just not working out so they decide to split up. John meets another woman and moves in with her before his divorce is final. Under this law, John is legally a bigamist and subject to criminal penalties – as is his new paramour. (In Utah, bigamy is a third-degree felony, punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $5,000.)
The court ruled that the government has no legitimate interest in policing these types of relationships, as long as no one is engaging in fraud by claiming to have more than one legally recognized spouse.
Because this legal challenge was brought by the stars of a reality TV show, it’s getting a lot of attention. It’s also sure to be appealed because Utah officials are not happy with it.
But claims that this decision is an assault on marriage or is somehow the inevitable consequence of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on same-sex marriage don’t hold up. As the Salt Lake Tribune noted, “What impact did this year’s gay marriage rulings have? It appears none. Neither of the U.S. Supreme Court cases received citations in Waddoups’ ruling.”
Ironically, Waddoups’ decision robustly interprets and applies the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment. That’s normally something conservatives applaud. They seem less than thrilled this time because the religion in question isn’t their own.
This decision, all 91 pages of it, will be much discussed and dissected in the days to come. But to me it seems to stand for the idea that the government has no business meddling in the types of personal relationships people choose to form. That’s not a terribly controversial idea.