There’s a piece of deliberately inflammatory click-bait in USA Today making what author Steve Deace calls, “A modest proposal for polygamy.” The column uses a whole lot of deeply provocative language to suggest that marriage equality proponents are being bigots by only considering expanding marriage to include same-sex couples, but not larger groupings of romantic partners such as those seen on the reality show Sister Wives:
How dare those seeking to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act signed by President Clinton, or Proposition 8 ratified by the people of California, stop at just redefining marriage to include two consenting adults of the same gender. Why do these people believe they have the authority to draw a moralistic line against any consenting adults, and thus force their moral standard upon the rest of us?
The whole thing appears designed to elicit a response of “Yeah! Why not polygamy? Gay people are prejudiced too!” from people naturally inclined toward anti-gay sentiment. What it doesn’t do is examine the legal construct of the civil marriage contract and why there are legitimate reasons against opening it to more than two parties.
I wrote about this at my blog a while back. Here are my thoughts on the matter:
The other question that Sister Wives always raises is why is polygamy illegal? And why does someone like me, who is a supporter of same-sex marriage, not want to open the door to making polygamy legal? I mean, assuming that the people involved in the marriage are all competent adults, what is wrong with them loving each other in whatever configuration works for them? The answer: nothing. But that doesn’t mean it should have the same legal standing as monogamist marriage.
I have no problem with polyamory, or the practice of being involved with more than one person at a time. Well, I’d have a problem with it for me because I’m not into that kind of thing, but if it floats your boat, rock on. Just don’t do it in the streets and scare the horses, ‘mkay? However, I don’t see a place in the legal framework of marriage to accommodate recognizing plural marriage. It can be acceptable socially, even sanctified by particular denominations, but the legal construct of marriage is between two people. Why only two? Because the line has to be drawn somewhere and we, as a society, agreed on two a long time ago.
Marriage is a contract recognized by all US governmental entities. The civil aspects of marriage bring with it certain privileges such as hospital visitation rights, shared property and inheritance laws, and shared entitlement benefits such as Social Security survivor benefits. The contract is written to apply to two individuals. There’s no reason on earth that the gender, race, ability, or religion of the individuals should matter to the state, which is why miscegenation laws and prohibitions on same-sex couples marrying are stupid. But there is a larger social issue involved in adding more individuals to the contract. For example, if Kody [the husband on Sister Wives] fell off his motorcycle and smashed his helmet-less head and died (and what kind of dad rides a motorcycle without helmet? Idiot.), should all four of his wives be entitled to full survivor benefits from Social Security? Or would they have to split the payments four ways? You might say they should split it but that would open the door to religious discrimination claims against the government for not recognizing all the marriages equally. And what about power of attorney and medical proxy decision? Would hospitals have to accept consensus decisions in cases like that? And how would they proceed in the event that one spouse could not be reached? I know that sort of thing happens in families now but we all know that adds to the complications at treatment.
Like I say, setting the maximum number of participants in a marriage at two is arbitrary. Someone came up with that one day and the entire legal framework for marriage grew up around that idea. To alter it now would be complicated and controversial. And, given that there’s not a great need to alter it to accommodate polyamorous families, I see no need to even raise the notion. I also don’t see the need for laws like the one in Utah that ban not only legally recognized polygamous marriage but also ban extra-martial relationships like the ones the people on Sister Wives have where they do their own thing and don’t expect the government to recognize it. As long as everyone is an adult and no coercion is going on, eh. Fine by me. And it can make for some good television.
Steve Dease is free to try to equate refusal to expand marriage law to more than one spouse to withholding civil two-party marriage rights from competent pairs of adults, but he’s making a specious argument. Marriage equality allows more people to enter marriage contracts under the laws as they stand. Expanding marriage to larger groups would require a revision of a large swath of our legal framework with no real demand to do so. It’s a false equivalency. It might make for a viral column but it’s not a good argument.