Patricia Nell Warren

Marriage, Polygamy and Gays

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | November 26, 2008 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Living, Marriage Equality, Media, Politics, Politics, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Christian beliefs, Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, Mormon, Muslims, polygamy, Prop. 8, same-sex marriage, sharia, sharia courts

One of the religious right's standard splutterings is that legalizing same-sex marriage will open the door to legalizing polygamy. Many of us have dismissed these splutterings as just another boogeyman that the right is conjuring that will make voters afraid of us. After all, it usually comes in the same breath with a threat that same-sex marriage will lead to people wanting to marry their pets...which is a ridiculous idea that shows how paranoid the religious right is, and how willing they are to grasp at straws to make a point. Marriage involves consent and pets can't consent.

But polygamy is a different matter. And it is one of the major battlefields in the marriage war.

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, 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? 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 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.

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This is an interesting analysis in terms of showing how the practice of polygamy *as practiced by some, the religious fundamentalists* (the parameters you've chosen here) is being encouraged or kept on the books via the idea of religious freedom.

So, I find it interesting for that reason. But I'm struck by the difference in treatment accorded to Mormons and Christian Polygamists on the one hand, and Islamic Polygamists on the other. Before I begin, let me just make it clear that I think the issue of polygamy needs to be explored in more detail. I don't care for marriage in general (as anyone who's read a word by me will have quickly gleaned) but there's a larger discussion to be had (one that the gay community in its current mania over hetero- modelled-marriage flees from) about what radical relational possibilities these arrangements might show us. They do offer us a way to think out loud about how strictly we define care, affection, and the really unstable idea of monogamous love.

Sadly, of course, polygamy as practiced by many traditional and conservative polygamists only replicates and magnifies traditional marriage in that it defines women and children as property (that's putting it broadly for the sake of this post). So I find it funny that advocates of traditional marriage would have issues with polygamy. After all, it's marriage as the *ne plus ultra* of marriage; you'd think they'd be happier about it.

And gay marriage, in the form that it's being advocated for by gay marriage proponents, including many feminists, seeks to do exactly the same - despite claims by many that "we" would somehow "redefine marriage" for the better.

I need to put that out there to ensure that everyone understands that I don't think there's anything to condone about the way polygamy is practised in its most abusive forms. Although, as a Nair, whose community was once poly*androus* and matrilineal, I'm all for recovering some traditions...

That being said, I'm struck by the differences, in this post, in the approach to the Mormons and Christian evangelists on the one hand, and the Islamic polygamists on the other. You detail the practices of honor killings, female genital cutting (the preferred term for some, given the complexity of the issue), and domestic violence in some detail but none of that is detailed in your section about the Mormons and the Christian polygamists. In this, the post, frankly, replicates the kind of Islamaphobia that's so prevalent in the U.S. and other Western countries. Yes, I see the numerous caveats and qualifying terms, but the overall perception of Islamic polygamy and Sharia is hard to miss.

Issues like that of the head scarf in France are hugely complicated. Those issues are also part of the neoliberal framework of global migration - they're not merely cultural and religious clashes. So my point here is: let's not rehash the same-old West vs. East mythology which distracts from other issues. And no, before someone rears up with a classic rejoinder: I'm NOT reducing everything to the economic and denying real abuse. I'm asking about how we frame our debates around these issues.

Surely the Mormons could be pointed to as a community that also sexually exploits children. And the Christian Polygamists - especially given their Biblical bent and notions about property - could be exposed as wife-abusers.

Is that sensationalistic and needlessly generalising? Perhaps. But my point is that they need to be critiqued on the same terms as Islamic polygamists. And very briefly, let me also say how disturbed I am by the perception of "Muslims stealing into our borders and changing our Western Ways" that crept in here. While I'm no expert, I do know that Sharia law is a lot more complicated than is suggested here. It also forbids charging interest on loans, which might be an interesting concept for us to examine more closely, yes?

All of which is to say: If we're going to talk about the hidden social consequences of polygamy within social units (in the light of "redefining marriage"), everyone's fair game. But let's not rehash the same narratives that the mainstream press delights in throwing around.

And before I end, let me make this clear: I have no plans to get into a debate about Sharia law vs. Western law, or to get into endless debates about whose polygamy is better or worse, or whose cultural practices are worse or better. I'm asking folks to think about the rhetoric and language in which we frame these discussions.

Reformed Ascetic | November 27, 2008 11:57 AM

I would like to agree with you Yasmin. I don’t think Patricia had any ill intent (and I personally don’t think she has fallen for any stereotypes), but I think in the general climate and often lack of personal experience there is far more beauty in Islam than current stereotypes often portray. The long association with scholarship. The actual, lived, requirements to perform good deeds for the community. Racial tolerance. Some predominantly Muslim countries have more impressive records of religious tolerance than some European countries. These are just randomly and arbitrarily selected examples.

Hopefully these aren’t points that need to be made. But it probably doesn’t hurt to repeat them.

Yasmin, your points are well taken. Re the Mormon and Christian polygamists, I do dwell on a specific issue that has been uppermost in many Americans' minds, namely child marriage and child molestation, which has been much-discussed by them in connection with the Warren Jeffs prosecution.

I also emphasize that the Mormon and Christian polygamists who are most interested in public approval are not in favor of child marriages and child abuse -- their position is that the practice should be legal for consenting adults.

As to Islamic polygamy, it alone of the three polygamy troups is creating a possible doorway of tolerance for itself through establishment of sharia in the U.S. In fact, most Americans are not even aware that sharia courts already exist here. That's why I give the subject a more detailed treatment than I do for Mormons and Christians.

I don't think it is "Islamophobic" of me to mention how violence against women can be given a lenient treatment in U.S. sharia courts, because frankly, that kind of lenience has reportedly already shown up in UK sharia courts. Which is why the UK sharia courts are already controversial. There are Islamic-based women's organizations that are opposing their establishment in the UK, Canada and the U.S. So I mention these issues, like honor killings and others, because they are a concern for many people.

As an interesting side note, our statute in Oregon (before our redefinition as one man one woman) said that "marriage is a contract between men and women." I couldn't help but notice that both terms were plural, and it made ponder if perhaps the strict literal definition would only find marriages valid if they held a plurality of both men and a plurality of women. Unfortunately, the attorney general disagreed with me and claimed that it meant the same thing as one man one woman.

But to get to my main point, you're missing a vitally important fourth group: polyamorous queers. While some of us might point to freedom of religion, without any unified organized religion to point to, that is difficult. It's likely that we are going to claim relationship recognition rights on the exact same points of the monogamous marriage equality movement. Hospital visitation, custody rights, inheritance, even healthcare.

I mean, there doesn't seem to be an argument for monogamous same-sex marriage that doesn't also apply to polyamorous relationship recognition. If you can only marry one of your partners, then you are left with just as much a lack of rights. If you can visit your married partner in the hospital, that right does nothing for you if it is your un-married partner who is in the hospital. If you can share your employers health plan with your married partner, that does nothing for you if it is your un-married partner who is uninsured.

I think it's important that the issue not be framed as the non-monogamous "boogeyman" (with all it's historical parallels to the "lavender menace" of the ERA fight), but as another important segment of our population being denied relationship recognition rights. After all, when the chant is marriage equality for all, don't we mean it?

Hi Tobi,

Thanks for your comments. The old Oregon wording is very interesting.

Of course I'm aware of polyamorous LGBT people, but since they're not organizing for legal recognition at this time, it didn't seem pertinent to include them. I was confining my focus to the current fights.

I have noticed, however, that the Christian polygamists have posted some comments about "what if homosexuals want to have plural marriage among themselves." So they're thinking along those lines that you anticipate.

BTW the boogeyman approach is not my choice of how to frame, but the religious right's choice.

I think it's worth noting that the reason why polyamorous queers are not organizing for legal recognition is because we've always been a part of larger LGBT organizations -- which are sending the strong message that we should remain quiet and closeted on the marriage fight. And so we quietly join the fight for marriage equality, ocassionally grumbling that it isn't ALL relationships that we're fighting for. I imagine, though, that getting legal same-sex marriage across the board will definitely be the jumping off point for polyamorous people to become visible and demand marriage equality for all. And I would hope that marriage equality activists who just got their rights would join us. That seems a very relevant part of answering the question " there any truth to the boogeyman claim that same-sex marriage opens the door to polygamy?"

Also, correct me if I'm wrong, I'm having a hard time drawing out your main point in this piece, but it appears to me that you're answering that question by pointing to religious polygamist communities as a larger "threat" or "boogeyman" than same-sex marriage. I think that's the lens that I want to challenge. Just because the religious right frames poly people as a boogeyman doesn't mean that we need to analyze the question within that frame. It's entirely possible to discuss the rights of poly people as a civil rights issue, as opposed to a looming threat. Even putting quotes around it as a "looming threat" doesn't really get away from the frame that (interracial/queer/poly/etc) relationships being recognized somehow hurt other people.

I see and understand the point you're making. But the religious right do use us as a "boogeyman"...not only with marriage questions but also in their fundraising and education policy and other ways. That is a strategy that they deliberately choose, and I think it's important to analyze that strategy for what it is.

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.

I was not aware of this, and will keep an eye on it.

I do know that when the polygamy question arose surrounding the community in Bountiful, B.C., the RCMP were reluctant to act because the sect could possibly be protected under laws governing freedom of religion. Same sex marriage laws were never cited in this case.

Now, personally, I've not been opposed to polyamory (although I'm probably too selfish to be in a polyamorous relationship, myself) and have seen such relationships work, but at the same time, I'm not keen on polygamy -- particularly because of the way it is currently used by a number of adherents to impose the exploitation of children and subjugation of women. To me, these two points are the points on which we should legislate and enforce. I would think such laws would be far more enforceable and effective in a court of law, anyway.

Imagine all the dependents they could claim on their income tax.
On an optimistic note, secularism is on the rise so this conversation about polygamy and freedom of religion will be passe in 10 years. My California marriage to my husband has nothing to do with religion.
Many young people, disenchanted with their forefathers' faith, are leaving the established religion altogether. Education on the Internet is a large contributor to secularism. The extremists of Abrahamic religions such as the Mormons and Muslims are out of sync in a country following the secularism of Europe.
Hopefully President Elect Obama will continue playing B-ball on Sunday's and stay out of church.

"Honor murders" have been going on in the US Muslim community for years, and have been properly treated the same as the US non-Muslim equivalents of murder of girlfriend or wife by a male perp. The main difference is that murder of children by non-Muslim fathers or brothers is motivated by the father's revenge against the mother, or occasionally by sibling competition for family resources.

There's a big difference between recognition by secular civil and criminal courts of sharia law as binding in secular law, and the existence of voluntary adherence to sharia law as the price of admission to the religious and social community. I feel strongly that secular civil and criminal law should be the only government-enforced law of the land. This doesn't make all aspects of sharia law unenforceable - merely resolves substantive conflicts in favor of secular law. In the US, a person shouldn't be "allowed" to give up civil liberties or protection by criminal law. This principle would make "status" uncontrollable by sharia law. A woman ought to be able to initiate divorce under state law, if a man can initiate divorce under the same conditions. She would have no right to consider herself a member of a specific religious community, however. Catholics have the same access to civil divorce as do Protestants (and the rest), but the Roman Church can and does excommunicate remarried divorcees/es.

I gather that a lot of sharia family law functions as contracts - prenuptial agreements about assets brought to the marriage and division in the case of divorce, about inheritance, about specifying monogamy as the condition of the marriage contract - the first two, being fiscal and not basic "status" concerns, are no different from existing secular prenuptial agreements, perfectly enforceable by the secular government, if both parties can be shown to have entered the agreement voluntarily.

One major issue with polygamy is how rights, consent, and resources are distributed among multiple spouses and children. The issue of intentional welfare "wives" is inflammatory, although with some reflection there is a certain equivalent in men who sire children on multiple women and then abandon or refuse to financially support said women and children.

Thanks for your interesting comments. It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out. Essentially what the sharia courts do here is to move things out of the criminal and regular civil sphere, and into arbitration. Supporters of the process insist that Muslim women often get a better break, especially when trying to divorce men. But often, when family violence is involved, they are at a disadvantage.

I don't know of any actual honor killings that have been finessed this way in the UK already, but there have evidently been cases when a husband's severe beating of a wife got arbitrated down to agreeing to anger management, while the wife was persuaded to not file criminal charges.

I can't imagine that the religious right will be happy with the establishment of U.S. sharia courts, once it sinks in with them that a rival religion is taking root this way.

Reformed Ascetic | November 27, 2008 11:34 AM

I was just reading an article about the Islamic Courts in Britain online. That article mentioned the Texas example. Up to that point I was not aware that any government tolerated any systematic alternatives to it’s own court systems. The article I read said that although it had been going on for many years, few non-Muslim Brits were aware of it either.

The points that author brought up were that there were actually multiple, separate Islamic courts based on national/religious divisions. That people often traveled in from other countries in Europe in participate in the system even though it was not legally binding. The author suggested a large portion (largest?) of the cases tried were women seeking divorces, and that they tended to have an uphill battle in obtaining one. In one specific example the author apparently witnessed it was being suggested to the women that she should go home and try again to work it out until her father walked in and supported her. Apparently the father’s support convinced the judge. The actual legally binding divorce had to then be sought and obtained through the national court system. Of course, it’s impossible for me to say if the author’s characterizations were fair or unfair. It also mentioned other developments like an Islamic banking system that helped people obtain provide/obtain loans without violating religious prohibitions (like the one against interest).

I keep going back and forth on the idea of a separate religious court system. Yes, in some sense it’s not any different than seeking private secular arbitration rather than going straight to a courtroom. And saying that it would impose on freedom of religion by essentially denying people access to religious counsel sounds pretty reasonable. But on the other hand, a large, cohesive, systematically operated parallel to a countries actual judicial is different than isolated, random arbitrators, and it sounds dangerously close to theocracy in practice if not in name. And considering the price many people have to pay for abandoning their religious practices, I have some concerns how truly voluntary the system is for everyone involved.

Having everyone go through the same secular court system might well violate the rights of some, but it might also provide others with the chance to obtain what they need without necessarily having to abandon their faith and community. But denying access to non-binding religious courts might also provide some from ever seeking aid/resolutions in the first place.

I thought I'd point out to everyone that Patricia's post was picked up by the Assholelliance Defense Fund blog, but I'm not quite sure what their point is...

Ive only gotten halfway through your article but had to comment. As a Gay Christian Pastor I actually advocate for group marriage for its social and economic sustainability for the family. I believe having 5-9 people exclusively committed to each other and the raising of children is a positive practical solution to a lot of the woes around us in society. The big difference between polygamy and group marriage is that while all are still exclusive with one another they are also equal in the relationship to each other. The relationships are incorporated as a business and each member is an equal cooperative owner of the business that governs the household. All of the children take the name of the business as their last name rather than the individual parents.

You can read more about it here: and also look up the 1970's social treatise The Westbank Group by Henry Sackerman aka Harold S. Kahm. If you want a quick review of the book I and why I believe strongly in the message of multiple partner relationships, I wrote two articles on it back in early 2005 and they are photographically linked at the bottom of the above post.

Overall I personally feel that loving more than one at the same time is natural, monogamy has been forced on us because of the political whims of history and control over the masses. If you dont believe that it can work just look at Reality Television. MTVs The Real World is up to season 22 and the reality is that these television shows are still based on the Group Marriage models talked about back in the 60's & 70's, and even before that.

In this article I'm not taking a position for or against polygamy -- just reporting on what's going on, with some emphasis on the sharia courts, since they have started opening legal doors for one particular religion's definition of polygamy


HAPPY Foundation here.
This was a very interesting new look at the situation and I am sending it around to others.
Gene Elder, by the Alamo