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Religious Tolerance logo

Is same-sex marriage a good or bad idea?

Four major historic changes
to marriage in North America

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Accommodating past changes in the institution of marriage:

Marriage has taken many forms, throughout history. The main changes -- each of which required that marriage be redefined, were::

bullet The Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) describe six different marriage/family forms that were practiced in ancient Israel, in addition to the standard "one man-one woman" format.
bulletMarriage in North America has evolved in different ways over the past 16 decades:
bulletPolygamous marriages: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (a.k.a. LDS church), first introduced the concept of polygyny -- one man married to multiple spiritual wives -- in the early 1840s. The practice has been variously called the Law of Abraham, or the Patriarchal Order of Marriage, and Celestial Plural Marriage. The associated Law of Sarah stated that women must stoically accept plural marriages. Their founder, Joseph Smith, allegedly had 33 wives. 1 Brigham Young had 55. 2 In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could take away citizenships from all members of the church as long as the LDS continued its practice of polygyny. Later, the government announced that they would start to seize the church's temples and other assets. Shortly afterwards, the LDS Church announced that they had received a revelation from God that radically changed church beliefs and practices. President, Wilford Woodruff issued the "Great Accommodation" manifesto on 1890-SEP-24. It suspended the solemnization of plural marriages for an indefinite period. They remain suspended today. Many splinter groups were later founded by disgruntled Mormons who were committed to polygyny. Some still exist and practice plural marriages openly, with minimal opposition from the Utah government. A fundamentalist group in British Columbia, Canada, also practices polygyny openly. The provincial Attorney General decided to not prosecute them because he felt that religiously motivated polygyny would probably be ruled constitutional under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. More information on LDS polygyny
bullet African-American marriages: In the mid 19th century, African-American slaves were not free to marry as white couples were. "...marriage could only take place after obtaining permission from the owner. Southern state laws denied the slaves legal marriage contracts." 3 Just as some gay and lesbian couples in recent years have gone through commitment ceremonies at sympathetic churches, "slaves...held ceremonies that revealed the seriousness with which they regarded married life." 3 Restrictions on African-American marriages were lifted after the civil war. Opposite-sex couples of all races were then free to legally marry anywhere in the U.S. -- but only as long as both spouses were of the same race.
bulletInter-racial marriages: Until a few decades ago, inter-racial marriage was considered a criminal act in some U.S. states. In 1958, Mildred Jeter, a Black woman, and Richard Loving, a White man, had been legally married in the District of Columbia. When they returned to Virginia, they were arrested because their inter-racial marriage violated Virginia's miscegenation laws. They pleaded guilty and were and sentenced to one year in jail. "...the trial judge suspended the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the Lovings leave the State and not return to Virginia together for 25 years." The trial judge, speaking for God, berated the Lovings with a theological speech which seems quaint to many people in the 21st century. He stated in an opinion that:  'Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix'." 4 The Lovings later asked that their sentences be vacated. They lost at the trial court , in an appropriately named case, Loving v. Virginia. They also lost at the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia. However, they won their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court's 1967 decision was sufficiently broad to overturn as unconstitutional all U.S. miscegenation laws, including the one in Virginia and similar legislation in 15 other states. Inter-racial couples were free to marry anywhere in the U.S. for the first time. In fact, with the exception of consanguinity and age restrictions, any woman and any man could marry in any North American jurisdiction.
bulletSame-sex marriages: Until 2003-JUN-10, same sex couples are not allowed to marry anywhere in North America. On that date, same-sex marriages became legal in Ontario, Canada. They became available in the province of British Columbia, Canada on JUL-8. In these jurisdictions, any two loving, committed couples can now marry, subject only to the consanguinity and age restrictions in the case of opposite-gender couples. Two years later, same-sex marriages were legalized across Canada.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages on 2003-NOV-19 in a ruling on a same-sex marriage case.

These four changes were painful experiences for many North Americans at the time. Many people view the institutions of marriage and the family as forming the basic foundation of society. Any attempt to change either the structure of marriage or the eligibility of people to marry can be profoundly distressing and destabilizing.

North American culture has been able to adapt to the first three major changes -- Polygyny in Utah, African-American marriages, inter-racial marriages with no apparent long-term harm to the nation -- although the fundamentalist Mormon version of polygynous marriages is profoundly injurious -- particularly to:

bullet Young males, most of whom are ejected from the community in order to artificially generate a surplus of girls available for marriage, and

bulletYoung women who are often forced into marriage in their early teens to much older men.

If past accommodations to marital changes are any indication, then North Americans should be able to accept same-sex marriage in stride.

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  1. Vern Anderson, "In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith," Book review in the Salt Lake Tribune, 1997-DEC-13, at:
  2. "Brigham Young's Wives and His Divorce From Ann Eliza Webb," Online Resources, at: This essay lists Young's wives by name, date of birth and date of death.
  3. Beverly White, "The Black American Family in Literature and Art," Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, at:
  4. "The Loving Decision - (June 12, 1967)," Association of MultiEthnic Americans, at: This essay contains the text of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, abridged for easier reading.

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Copyright © 2003 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-JUL-10
Latest update: 2013-JAN-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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