Many "traditional" religionists don't want us to have marriage, of course, and they will fight us to the death on this point, even if we agree to call it "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships." But they're also using the noisy public debate about "gay marriage" as a diversion, to keep the public away from a serious debate about the pros and cons of polygamy. So far, their tactic has met with mixed success, because some polygamists are actually making a little headway in their drive for recognition. Read on.
Twelve years ago, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA defined marriage as the "legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife. Note the operative word "one." This language was established in the 1868 federal legislation outlawing polygamy, that targeted the Mormons. Throughout the states, anti-gay-marriage legislation -- including Prop 8 -- often opts for that wording "a man and a woman." There's no doubt that the Alliance for Marriage Foundation, which was the main lobbyist/instigator for DOMA legislation, had a double purpose here. They were determined to slam the door on both gays and polygamists at the federal level. Jerry Falwell himself, head of the Moral Majority, which campaigned against same-sex marriage, also campaigned against polygamy under the slogan "one man and one woman."
Congress and President Clinton evidently went along with the AMF's supporters -- which were conservative Christians, Jews and Black Muslims who note with alarm that an growing percentage of the U.S. population are demanding legalization of polygamy. The grounds for this demand: religious freedom.
The fact is, not one but three different factions want to get polygamy legalized. Each of them base their claim to religious freedom on their "sacred book."
The Mormon Polygamists
Naturally the first to come to mind is the Mormon Church. Polygamy, or "plural marriage" as they call it, was one of the practices of ancient Hebrew patriarchs that Mormons sought to restore at their founding in 1830, as per their Book of Mormon. In 1890, after occupation of Utah by federal troops, lots of coercion, unfriendly legislation by Congress and rejection by the U.S. Supreme Court, the LDS Church agreed to give up polygamy.
But today there are still an estimated 100,000 Mormons who are said to practice polygamy underground. Some are creepy rogues like Warren Jeffs and his splinter group, who were forced out of hiding and prosecuted for their crimes against minor children. But the majority of closet polygamists are portrayed by supporters as dignified community figures who view the practice as legitimate when practiced by consenting adults.
Why should anybody tremble at Mormon leverage on this issue today? Because, in the last century, the LSD Church has moved from marginal to massive in its social and economic influence. It can now swing the vote in several Western states, not just Utah. Throughout the region, the LDS church has a large percentage of the population, notably in California, Nevada, Arizona and Wyoming. We already saw how they swung California with Prop 8. In fact, the Mormon victory on 8 should not surprise to anybody who watched the church's presence emerging in the Golden State for the last 20 years.
Plus the LSD church can now field politicians who are viewed as serious candidates for President, like Mitt Romney. In a word, Mormonism has finally arrived as a major player on the American political field.
Does the Mormon leadership ever plan to formally reintroduce the polygamy issue? They insist not. But in recent years, a rash of individual Mormon polygamists have gone to court hoping that their cases would make it on a freedom-of-religion basis. So far, they've been slapped down. In 2006, Utah's Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state's bigamy statute. The court also held that the state's statute bars polygamous marriages that are solemnized through religious ceremonies even when no state marriage license has been sought.
But with the right case, and enough money, and a changing political climate, Mormons in favor of polygamy might get what they want. That scares the bejeezus out of the DOMA crowd.
The Bible-Based Christian Polygamists
Less known to most Americans is the growing movement of Christian polygamists. Somewhat like the Mormons, they base their marriage dogma on the early Hebrew patriarchs like Abraham who were said to be polygamists. Their sacred book is the Bible's Old Testament. But they resent being compared to the Mormons. Many don't even consider the Mormons to be "Christian" because their canon of belief differs from the Mormons' on some points. They fall over themselves to point out that they are not child molesters like Warren Jeffs.
Led by Mark Henkel of TruthBearer.org, the Christian polygamists take a different tack on trying to change U.S. law. They insist that the federal law outlawing polygamy is unconstitutional, that it violates separation of church and state. They demand that government stop trying to "protect marriage" with its laws. Instead, they say, government should get out of the business of regulating marriage altogether, and leave this "sacred" institution to the churches.
In advocating this, the Christian polygamists are bucking several centuries of Western history and precedent. In most countries, religion deliberately turned marriage over to civil government precisely because some churches had issues with other churches about efforts to control marriage. Henkel fulminates against "the false god of big socialist government" and its policy "to define, license, and control God's doctrine of marriage."
Legislative efforts along this line have already been tried. In Maine in 2007, a state legislative committee quickly killed a proposed bill, L.D. 779, which sought to remove clergy from certifying marriage licenses. Christian conservatives, even the pro-polygamist variety, have convinced themselves about the boogeyman notion that "all churches will be compelled to perform same-sex marriages if we LGBT people get the legalization we want." Of L.D. 779, Henkel said, "While it had had the potential to protect churches from being forced into big government 'compliance' to licensing mandates, it would have done so in an unacceptable, opposite direction. That is, instead of kicking government out of marriage, L.D. 779 would have kicked the churches out."
Henkel and his cohorts are working towards getting government's generalized control of marriage to be declared unconstitutional.
The Muslim Polygamists
The third threat that the DOMA crowd see coming is from traditionalists in the U.S.'s growing Muslim population. Generally the U.S.'s Islamic community has been quietly growing ever since around 1900. In recent decades, however, that community's growth has exploded with a rushing inflow of immigrants and refugees, many of them from fundamentalist Islamic countries where plural marriage is legal.
Pro-Israel Jewish activists share some Christians' concern over the growing power of Islam in the U.S., fearing that the Muslim vote could impact U.S. policy on Israel. But the concern goes way past the standard worries about "domestic Muslim terrorists," into a terra incognita of social changes that may affect the very fabric of our society. It's true that liberal and even moderate Muslim-Americans have largely abandoned the practice of polygamy. But traditionalists still insist on it because their sacred book, the Koran, authorizes Muslim men to have up to four wives, provided they can care for them adequately.
U.S. census authorities don't keep stats on religion, so they don't know how big the Muslim population actually is. Recent conservative estimates put it at nearly 3 million, while liberal estimates push it as high as 7-8 million. Even a middling number of 5-6 million would make Muslims a sizeable voting bloc. Muslim immigrants or refugees who arrive here with more than one wife, though legal in their country of origin, are required to pick one wife as the legal spouse under U.S. law and jettison the rest. However, according to a recent NPR story, there are an estimated 100,000 U.S. Muslims, perhaps more, who are practicing closet polygamy. The practice is kept so well hidden, that welfare rolls in some areas are said to be studded with "single-appearing" Muslim women with children who are actually polygamous spouses of a husband who doesn't cohabit with her but simply lives nearby, so he can stay in deep cover.
Along with traditionalist Muslim polygamy, other practices can sometimes be found which are illegal in the U.S. as well as rejected by educated liberal Muslims, not to mention decried by human-rights groups and feminists. They include arranged marriage of girls without their consent, strictures around the lives of women, honor punishments and female genital mutilation.
Islamic Law in America
With polygamy so thoroughly outlawed in the U.S., one would think that the DOMA faction wouldn't lie awake at night worrying about Islamic polygamy. But evidently they do...and here's why. Immigrant traditionalists who want the same kind of life here that they lived in their countries of origin have discovered a back door into our legal system. Through it, they're quietly linking their Islamic law system, sharia, with our practice of arbitration.
Under conservative Islam, sharia is "state religion" -- government by clerics (called imams), rather than government by elected officials. In countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia that have a sharia government, all decision-making involving law -- legislation, courts, education, family issues, even finance -- is run by clergy and based on Koranic teachings. With the growth of large conservative immigrant Muslim populations in Western countries, the issue of how these immigrants can continue practicing their sharia-based religion freely within non-Muslim law systems, has become a very hot one.
Right now, sharia is actually stealthing its way into the U.S. Sharia courts are already operating in Texas, of all places, under the aegis of a Second Court of Appeals decision that sharia judgments rendered by U.S. imams are enforceable.
The new Texas process now makes it possible for all kinds of cases involving traditionalist Muslims and their beliefs to be handled in arbitration. Here, issues involving family law -- like dowries, divorce and child custody--can be shunted from regular court to Texas Islamic Court, on request of the parties involved. There the cases would be handled in a manner that is considered friendly to Islamic sensibilities of both men and women. How do these courts accomodate and legitimize polygamy? Because they will arbitrate on issues that arise from situations where a man is living in a relationship with a woman that is not his wife under U.S. law but his 2nd, 3rd or 4th wife according to Koranic law, and with whom he may have children.
Unfortunately, these proceedings also have the potential to shuffle serious crimes -- like domestic violence, child abuse, even honor killing -- from a standard U.S. criminal proceeding into arbitration. Often it appears that the aggrieved woman is persuaded to drop charges and the husband gets off with a light sentence. So -- for instance -- a U.S. Muslim head of family who has badly beaten a wife or daughter over an "honor" issue can get off with a stipulation by the judge that he get anger-management counseling, instead of being criminally prosecuted and jailed for assault and battery, the way he would if he were a non-Muslim. This kind of conclusion to a case of domestic violence has already happened in sharia courts in the UK.
Now attempts are being made to launch sharia courts in other states, notably California, where the biggest U.S. Muslim population lives.
How does this conservative Muslim legal movement open the door to polygamy? It might create a groundwork of legal decisions that allows it to become gradually legalized nationally through precedent. As one American legal expert put it about the Texas situation, "Without a theory as to why shari'a arbitration agreements shouldn't be enforced by the courts, I'm not sure what else the appeals court could have done in this case. Still, this is not a welcome development."
Sharia Courts in Other Countries
In some other countries, the trend is going like a house afire as well. In the UK, with its large Muslim population, sharia courts have already been operating in England and Scotland for a year or more. Indeed, the British have gone one step further and legalized a type of marriage model that is customized to Islamic belief. Critics fear that this marriage takes one more step towards establishing a separate-but-equal track for sharia law in the UK. Since England still has a state church -- the Church of England -- critics predict that the English will one day be very sorry that they opened the door to a different legal system based on a rival religion.
Meanwhile, those who fear that legalization of same-sex marriage and polygamy are linked can also point to what's happening in Canada. In the liberal-minded province of Ontario, which legalized same-sex marriage several years ago, there is now some legal slack for Muslim polygamists who enter the country and can show that they were legally married to more than one wife in their country of origin. Reportedly hundreds of Muslim men are receiving welfare and social benefits for each of their partners, both from Ontario Province and the city of Toronto. This practice doesn't jibe with Canadian national law, but at the moment it isn't being challenged.
Already, in Canada and the U.S., there are activist human-rights organizations fighting the establishment of sharia law. According to them, on the heels of sharia courts will come the destruction of Muslim women's rights as established in Western democracy, as well as attempts to establish sharia schools within the U.S. public school system, and a host of other issues.
But not every Western country is letting sharia in the door without a fight. In France, the government has been trying hard to protect the country's traditional policy of staying strictly secular. The wearing of all traditional religious clothing -- including the Muslim headgear for women -- has been outlawed in French schools. Some human-rights organizations have rushed to criticize the French for alleged violations of religious freedom. But the headscarf issue is only of a host of issues that affect women, right through the perceived right of many Muslim family males to punish women, even murder them, for the sake of family "honor."
What's In It for Us?
So...is there any truth to the boogeyman claim that same-sex marriage opens the door to polygamy?
Though the DOMA dogmatists insist that our success would be a real threat, I doubt it's going to happen that way. If same-sex marriage gets accepted first and the polygamists ride into Camelot on our coat tails, they will do it kicking and screaming and telling the whole world how much they hate us. Because all three of the polygamy lobbies are opposed to homosexuality on principle.
Conversely -- if those Mormon, Christian and Muslim plural-marriage advocates ever get to acceptance first, or if they even make any major headway at all, we gay people will get no help or sympathy whatever from them. They will do everything in their power to impede us, and to help the religious establishment keep us stomped down.
Two final points:
In Texas, where a state DOMA and constitutional amendment define marriage as a "union of one man and one woman," using the anti-polygamy language of the federal act, the legal system apparently has no problem doing a 180-degree flip-flop to accommodate marriage practices that might involve closet polygamy. Yet Texas refuses to accommodate LGBT people who want to marry within the law. Surely this is a horrible contradiction that our own lawyers and activists can possibly take advantage of...in court.
In the meantime, Mormon, Christian and Muslim advocates of plural marriage accuse us gays of trying to "redefine" marriage -- yet they're trying hard to redefine marriage themselves. It's the biggest "go figure" we've ever faced.