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In this essay, "SSM" means "same-sex marriage."

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Polygamy involves the marriage of more than two persons at the same time. It can take a number of forms. Some are:

bulletPolygyny: the marriage of one man with multiple wives.
bulletPolyandry: the marriage of one woman with multiple men.
bulletPolyamory: An umbrella term that describes a romantic and/or sexual relationship involving multiple partners at the same time. The participants may or may not consider themselves to be married to each other.

More definitions

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Marriage in North America has taken many forms through history:

bulletThe vast majority of marriages have always involved one man and one woman.
bulletIn its early years The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) heavily promoted polygyny. The LDS church teaches that a revelation came directly from God in 1890 which led to the Church suspending most polygynous marriages. This is referred to as the "Great Accommodation.
bulletIn 2003-JUN, a court decision ruled that same-sex couples could be married in the Province of Ontario, Canada. This quickly expanded to a total of seven provinces and one territory. As of 2005-FEB-22, 87% of Canadians lived in a province or territory which has legalized SSM. If the federal bill C-38 is passed, SSM will be legalized for the remaining 13% of Canadians.

On 2004-MAY-17, SSM became available Massachusetts for residents of the state.


Between 1997 and 2001, the states of Louisiana, Arizona and Arkansas introduced covenant marriages as a option to traditional "contract" marriages. Covenant marriages typically require pre-marital counseling and deny the spouses access to no-fault divorce except after long periods of separation.


Polygyny remains the norm within some Fundamentalist Mormon denominations, primarily in the states of Utah and Arizona and in the Canadian province of British Columbia. It remains illegal there in theory, but not in practice.

In various debates over SSM, its opponents have predicted that allowing same-sex couples to marry will inevitably lead to the legalization of polygamy. They believe that the only way to prevent the legalization of polygamy is to prohibit SSM. This essay will describe various viewpoints on this linkage.

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One viewpoint: legalization of SSM would inevitably lead to polygamy:

During debates on the Federal Marriage Amendment in the U.S. and same-sex marriage in both Canada and the U.S., many opponents to SSM have expressed the belief that if SSM were legalized, polygamy would inevitably follow. For example:

bulletSocial commentator Stanley Kurtz argued that: "Among the likeliest effects of gay marriage is to take us down a slippery slope to legalized polygamy and 'polyamory' (group marriage). Marriage will be transformed into a variety of relationship contracts, linking two, three, or more individuals (however weakly and temporarily) in every conceivable combination of male and female. A scare scenario? Hardly. The bottom of this slope is visible from where we stand. Advocacy of legalized polygamy is growing. A network of grass-roots organizations seeking legal recognition for group marriage already exists. The cause of legalized group marriage is championed by a powerful faction of family law specialists. Influential legal bodies in both the United States and Canada have presented radical programs of marital reform. Some of these quasi-governmental proposals go so far as to suggest the abolition of marriage" 1
bulletTom Wappell, a Canadian member of parliament for Scarborough Southwest, and a member of the Liberal party, is a well-known opponent of SSM. While debating SSM in parliament on 2005-FEB-18, he noted that marriage has always been a discriminatory institution. The government refuses marriage licenses to certain persons, discriminating on the basis of age, mental disability, consanguinity, religion and sex. He asked: "...why is it acceptable to remove discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but continue to permit and perpetuate in legislation and common law other forms of discrimination? Either we eliminate all forms of discrimination or we leave the current definition alone." Eliminating discrimination would legalize child marriage, polygamy, marriage between brother and sister, etc. He continued: If marriage is redefined to include same-sex couples, then polygamy is inevitable. He said: "Some say that raising polygamy is a red herring and has nothing whatsoever to do with this bill. That is utter legal nonsense." He referred to two instances where illegal sexual practices had become legal: court decisions have legalized SSM, and have declared laws against anal intercourse to be unconstitutional. His implication is that polygamy is next. 2\
bulletDr. James Dobson, founder and head of the Fundamentalist Christian group Focus on the Family has written: "...the introduction of legalized gay marriages will lead inexorably to polygamy and other alternatives to one man/one woman unions....Why will gay marriage set the table for polygamy? Because there is no place to stop once that Rubicon has been crossed. Historically, the definition of marriage has rested on a foundation of tradition, legal precedent, theology and the overwhelming support of the people. After the introduction of marriage between homosexuals, however, it will be supported by nothing more substantial than the opinion of a single judge or by a black-robed panel of justices. After they have reached their dubious decisions, the family will consist of little more than someone’s interpretation of 'rights.' Given that unstable legal climate, it is certain that some self-possessed judge, somewhere, will soon rule that three men or three women can marry. Or five men and two women. Or four and four. Who will be able to deny them that right? The guarantee is implied, we will be told, by the Constitution. Those who disagree will continue to be seen as hate-mongers and bigots. (Indeed, those charges are already being leveled against Christians who espouse biblical values!) How about group marriage, or marriage between cousins, or marriage between daddies and little girls? How about marriage between a man and his donkey? Anything allegedly linked to 'civil rights' will be doable. The legal underpinnings for marriage will have been destroyed." 3
bulletMichael Foust of the Baptist Press wrote: "As the nation continues to debate same-sex 'marriage,' some have begun examining the logical extension of its legalization. If the legal benefits of marriage are awarded to homosexual men, then why aren't they also given to, say, three polygamists?"

He cites columnist Maggie Gallagher, a strong supporter of the Federal Marriage Amendment which was designed to ban SSM. She said: "There isn’t a single argument in favor of same-sex marriage that isn't also an argument in favor of polygamy –- people have a right to marry who they love, these relationships already exist ... we have no right to deny the children of their protections."

Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation, said she sees no "logical stopping point" if same-sex "marriage" is legalized. This is the dissolution of the parameters around marriage. You’d be hard-pressed to say, 'Why not any other kind of arrangement'?" 4
bulletKris Reason, "a Vacaville [CA] resident and a longtime letter writer" wrote: "In America, homosexual activists are trying to hijack marriage by forcing the judicial system to redefine marriage as 'the union of any people who love each other.' This redefinition, if legalized across the country, will open a Pandora's box of homosexual marriage, polygamy, group marriage, child marriage, and any other legalized combination of 'loving people'." 5

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An opposing viewpoint: SSM will not inevitably lead to polygamy:

Same-sex marriage is not linked in a cause-and-effect relationship to polygamy. Some arguments for this position are:

bulletGovernments throughout North America have historically discriminated against certain persons in marriage. They will not issue marriage licenses to certain persons on the basis of:
bulletAge: a couple has to be old enough to marry.
bulletDisability: Those who are severely mentally disabled are often prevented from marrying.
bulletConsanguinity: Those who are too closely related cannot marry.
bulletReligion: The law discriminates against those faith groups that promote polygyny.
bulletSex: In most jurisdictions, couples of the same sex cannot marry.
bulletSpecies: Humans can only marry other humans, not their pets or other animals.
bulletQuantity: All known marriage laws prohibit the marriage of three or more persons to each other.

There is no reason why a state government in the U.S. or the federal government in Canada cannot modify or eliminate any one of these criteria without changing the remainder. A decision to change one factor is independent of changes to the others.

Allowing two persons of the same sex to marry is one decision. Allowing more than two persons to marry is a separate decision. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between the two. A government could approve of neither, of both, or of one without the other. They are independent expansions to the traditional concept of marriage.

bulletMany of the historical restrictions on marriage make sense from a cultural viewpoint. Allowing pre-teens and young teens to marry is not desirable because very few youth can handle the demands of matrimony at their age. It can be argued that persons suffering from a mental disability who are unable to comprehend the nature of marriage should not be allowed to marry. Individuals who are too closely related -- like brothers and sisters -- should not be allowed to marry each other because of the much higher possibility of genetic defects in their children. Similarly, some might argue that polygamy is an unacceptable extension of marriage because their might not be adequate information available in the following areas:
bulletThe long-term stability of polygamous relationship.
bulletThe level of abuse of wives, particularly in patriarchal families. Oprah Winfrey's show referred to polygamous families in Utah and Arizona as "third-world Taliban-type" cultures.
bulletThe level of child abuse.
bulletAllegations of girls as young as 12 years of age being forced to marry.
bulletAllegations of incest within polygamous families
bulletAllegations of a high level of welfare fraud. Some polygamous families enroll all but one of the wives on welfare as single mothers with children in order to finance the entire family.

One recently published book, "God's Brothel" implies that various forms of abuse are common in Fundamentalist Mormon polygamous families. 6 Unfortunately, since the practice of polygamy is conducted in secret, it is difficult to obtain a balanced picture.
If fraud, abuse, and negative effects on children are common in polygamous families, then legislatures would have good grounds to continue to ban polygamy.

Although there is no cause-and-effect relationship between same-sex marriage and polygamy, both are linked to a third cultural belief: that confining marriage to one woman and one man is too restrictive. It causes hardship to committed couples. It leaves their children without many protections that are enjoyed by children in other family structures. It lowers some loving committed relationships to second-class status. A minority of Americans and a majority of Canadians now accept the desirability of same-sex marriage. The same logic might lead to majority support in the future for certain forms of polygamous relationships.

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A third viewpoint: The question is moot. Polygamy is already practiced:

Some argue that the question of SSM inevitably leading to the legalization of polygamy is already moot. Polygamy is already here. There are already tens of thousands of polygamous couples in North America. Although their relationships are not recognized or registered with their state or provincial governments, they are allowed to exist with little or no harassment. Since polygamy has been practiced for about 17 decades in North America, compared to less than two years for SSM (as of 2005-FEB), it might be argued that SSM was the inevitable result of polygamy:

bulletPolyamorous relationships are already practiced widely: Canada and most states in the U.S. have decriminalized most pre-marital sex, adultery, inter-marital sex and post-marital sex among adults. Some states still have laws that prohibit sexual activity outside of marriage. However, they are rarely enforced. Some groups have formed to practice a type of polygamy -- polygyny, polyandry, polyamory -- without government involvement, recognition, or oppression. Some organize around a married couple with additional adults living together in a group. Some might consider themselves as married to each other; some may even hold a religious ritual to bind the group together in a type of marriage that only the participants recognize. But as far as the state is concerned, they are only aware of a number of roommates living together in a house, or a married couple(s) with boarders. Charges of bigamy are avoided for the simple reason that no one member of the group has more than one marriage registered with the state. The federal government of Canada and some states have criminalized sexual activity involving more than two persons at a time in the same location. Prosecution under these laws can be avoided by restricting sexual activity to two persons at a time.

The 2003-JUN Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas ruled that governments cannot criminalize private activities by adults just because the majority considers them to be immoral. This has probably given a boost to those favoring polygamous and polyamory living arrangements.
bulletPolygyny is widely practiced in certain areas of the U.S. states of Utah and Arizona and the Canadian province of British Columbia among Fundamentalist Mormon denominations. Various individuals and groups estimate that many tens of thousands of adults -- up to 100,000 spouses -- are involved in polygynous relationships. They have experienced minimal interference from their governments in recent generations. The lack of opposition in Utah may be influenced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' promotion of polygyny in the past. The lack of opposition in Canada is due to its constitution: The Charter of Rights and Freedom. The British Columbia Attorney General obtained advice from constitutional experts that the Charter's guarantee of religious freedom would override any legislation prohibiting polygyny. Realizing that they would probably lose any lawsuit, the Province has decided to not prosecute the Fundamentalist Mormons.

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References used:

  1. Stanley Kurtz, "Beyond gay marriage: The road to polyamory," The Weekly Standard, 2004-AUG-04, at: http://www.weeklystandard.com/
  2. Tom Wappel, Bill C-38, Hansard, at: http://www.parl.gc.ca/
  3. James Dobson, "Eleven Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage (Part 1 of 5)," Focus on the Family, 2004-MAY-23, at: http://www.family.org/
  4. Michael Foust, "If same-sex ‘marriage’ is legalized, why not polygamy?," Mar 19, 2004
    Baptist Press, 2004-MAR-19, at: http://www.bpnews.net/
  5. Kris Reason, "Don't let homosexuals hijack marriage," Voices, at:
  6. Andrea Moore-Emmett, "God's Brothel: The Extortion of Sex for Salvation in Contemporary Mormon and Christian Fundamentalist Polygamy and the Stories of 18..." Pince-Nez Press, (2004-JUN). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Copyright © 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2005-FEB-22
Latest update: 2005-FEB-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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