Still stuck in the fight over same-sex marriage? Canadians have already moved on. This month, the British Columbia Supreme Court began hearings on the constitutionality of Canada’s anti-polygamy law. In the United States, where polygamist Warren Jeffs is also facing court, we too may find ourselves debating the number as well as the gender of spouses allowed in a marriage.
As the child of four parents, I would welcome that discussion.
A gradual shift in public opinion and a series of court cases led up to Canada’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005. Recent popular votes show that the United States has years to go before passing similar laws, but with every opinion poll, the percentage of U.S. voters in favor gets larger.
The same pattern may well play out in the debate over polygamy. In fact, the legitimacy of anti-polygamy laws could figure in the trial of Warren Jeffs, former leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Last week, a Utah appeals court allowed Jeffs’ extradition to Texas on charges of bigamy (the U.S. legal term for polygamy) and sexual assault. Jeffs had argued he should remain in Utah until similar charges there have been resolved.
In another parallel to the gay marriage debate, opponents of polygamy have had difficulty showing how any adults can be harmed by it. Instead they have emphasized the effects on children. Both Jeffs and Winston Blackmore, leader of an offshoot of the FLDS in British Columbia, have been accused of forcing underage girls into marriage.
But children are already protected from rape, child abuse and human trafficking in the United States and Canada by other laws. Instead of bringing charges against Blackmore under these laws, Canadian prosecutors focused on polygamy, while U.S. prosecutors are using both types of statute.
I hope that courts in both countries strike down anti-polygamy laws because they criminalize people who harm no one in their pursuit of love. People like my parents.
In the early 1970s, my mother and father met another couple and fell in love. The other couple, with their three daughters, moved into the house where my parents, my brother, my sister and I were already living.
Our little commune had nothing to do with Mormonism. There was no patriarch. The women held jobs outside the house. The men cooked and cleaned, and so did my brother and I, alongside our sisters. Our parents never pushed us toward any kind of sexuality, or even suggested that our marriages should resemble theirs when we grew up. (For the record, I’ve been married to the same woman for almost 20 years.)
Also the rules stayed tight; my parents always knew my whereabouts, met my friends, visited my school, made sure I finished my chores. In short, I got what children need. But since the four adults lived together for four years, their lifestyle might have violated cohabitation if not bigamy laws in most parts of the United States and Canada.
In the course of researching a novel on group marriage, I interviewed other parents and children who lived through similar alternative arrangements. Their lives were more like mine than those depicted in mass media fictions such as the HBO TV series “Big Love” or CBS’s “Swingtown.”
Opponents of polygamy also charge that it is less stable than monogamy, subjecting children to a greater risk of a broken home. But there’s simply no evidence for that.
In fact, the kind of egalitarian polygamy my parents practiced may even prove more stable than monogamy because spouses are less likely to have affairs behind each others’ backs. It would probably be more stable still if participants could commit to each other openly and legally.
My own parents’ arrangement ended with divorce of the two original couples. But unlike most couples, my parents separated without yelling, battling over custody, or even hiring lawyers. That may only have been possible because they had both remained honest with each other, even as they grew apart.
I don’t think they could have remained a happy duo under any circumstances, and I appreciate their effort to keep our family together in one place by whatever means they could find, for as long as they could.
I hope the B.C. Supreme Court agrees, allowing Canadian adults once and for all to marry whom they please — and that the United States will soon follow suit.