Looking down the road

polygamyisutahsomeIn 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law against sodomy. "Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court. Justice Atonin Scalia disagreed with the decision -- and even more so with the reasoning behind it. The court wrote the ruling so broadly, he argued, that the current social order would be massively disrupted. Since the court didn't "cabin the scope of its decision," state laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity would also be attacked, Scalia predicted.

High-profile efforts to introduce same-sex marriage have been covered frequently. Jon Pomfret, writing for The Washington Post, looked at what progress has been made on the first of Scalia's list: bigamy. He talks to various polygamists, including "Valerie," about their efforts to legalize polygamy. Valerie, by the way, insists that she's "just like you and me." I love that meme. Anyway:

Valerie and others among the estimated 40,000 men, women and children in polygamous communities are part of a new movement to decriminalize bigamy. Consciously taking tactics from the gay-rights movement, polygamists have reframed their struggle, choosing in interviews to de-emphasize their religious beliefs and focus on their desire to live "in freedom," according to Anne Wilde, director of community relations for Principle Voices, a pro-polygamy group based in Salt Lake.

In their quest to decriminalize bigamy, practitioners have had help from unlikely quarters. HBO's series "Big Love," about a Viagra-popping man with three wives, three sets of bills, three sets of chores and three sets of kids, marked a watershed because of its sympathetic portrayal of polygamists. The U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which voided laws criminalizing sodomy, also aided polygamy's cause because it implied that the court disapproved of laws that reach into the bedroom.

The piece focuses on the positive, but does mention the child rape that happens in some polygamous communities. It also discusses the Mormon roots of the practice. Pomfret says that state authorities adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in recent years.

One reason was that the politically powerful Mormon Church, while officially opposing polygamy, did not want the bad press strict enforcement might bring. Another reason was that law enforcement was worried that isolated polygamist communities would erupt in violence if raided. An internal memo at the Arizona attorney general's office in 2002 spoke of a "Waco-level problem" among the polygamous communities along the Utah state line.

For such huge claims, it would help to have some substantiation. If you're going to say the Mormon Church was able to get law enforcement officers to stop enforcing the law in order to bolster the church, you need some support. Also, if you have that information, that would make a fantastic story. But no one from the LDS is quoted.

Other than that, the piece is fine. A colleague of mine described it as "surfacey," noting that none of the polygamy sources mentioned on ReligionLink's polygamy page was quoted. What the piece does do is offer a starting point for discussion.

Whether or not polygamists are successful in using the Lawrence decision to help legalize bigamy, their efforts need to be covered. In general it would be helpful for reporters to look down the road at more marriage stories.

If fundamentalist Mormons succeed in overturning laws against bigamy based on the First Amendment instead of the Fourteenth Amendment as in Lawrence, what would be some of the unintended -- or intended -- consequences of such a decision?

If gay marriage is legalized, will that help formally sanction families such as the ones profiled in The New York Times last week -- with multiple female and male partners? How might that affect family law, the tax code and inheritance laws?

If barriers to marriage are lowered, would there be an incentive for non-intimate couples or groupings to marry for benefits? If so, would that change how companies confer benefits? If companies cease offering benefits for partners, would that affect whether -- for instance -- one spouse is able to stay home and raise offspring?

Writing stories about how arcane our marriage laws are, as many reporters do, is fine. But it would be nice to see more in-depth reporting about the consequences of changes to marriage laws.

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