In an attempt to combat polygamy in their state, Utah’s bigamy law not only criminalized multiple marriage licenses, it also outlawed the cohabitation of multiple women with one man—even if only one of the women had a legal marriage license—to prevent polygamists from using this loophole to skirt the law.
This second part of Utah’s law was recently struck down by a U.S. District Judge, allowing for polygamy in practice, though it’s still not recognized by the state:
U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled that the [cohabitation] aspect is too broad because it bars consenting adults from living together and criminalizes their intimate sexual relationships.
He said the law violates both the First Amendment's clause ensuring religious rights and the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause designed to ensure liberty.
The rest of Utah's bigamy law remains intact under the ruling, so only individuals who fraudulently obtain multiple marriage licenses would be guilty.
Jennifer Roback Morse was interviewed on Issues Etc. about this, and as she notes, it’s a short step from this to the objection that the non-legally married wives and their children are being denied the rights and protections the law offers to the legal wife and children, leading to the conclusion that because of this unfairness, we ought to legalize polygamy. Add to this the principles cited and accepted for changing the definition of marriage to be one that includes same-sex couples (marriage is a matter of intense emotional connection between people, you have a right to marry the person you love, “marriage equality”), and only a small push will be needed for the legalization of polygamy. There will be no principled reason left to stand in its way.
Dr. Morse explains how equality and freedom suffer in polygamous societies:
Nobody wants to ask, “What happens if anybody can be polygamous any time that they want to, and you have a full-on polygamous society?” Well, what happens in those societies typically—and I challenge anybody to show me a society that contradicts this—is that the rich men have more than their share of wives. They have multiple wives, and guys with modest means are kind of scrambling around, looking for somebody to marry.
And so the systemic pressure in those societies is, number one, to drive the men out of society—to find some place for young men to go. So in [polygamous] Mormon culture, you’ll find the teenage boys being “driven off the ranch” kind of a thing, and you’ll also find pressure for girls to get married younger and younger. That’s the way the gap is filled is through younger and younger marriages. And you’ll also find more possessiveness of women. You don’t find a lot of choices among women. Women become prized, and they’re prized by those who are wealthy enough to afford multiple wives. And it doesn’t end up being more free for women, it ends up being less free for women. And so, like I say, I challenge anybody to show me a society that is a serious counterexample to that—where you’ve got widespread, society-wide acceptance of polygamy where you don’t end up with those types of effects.
And so, we’re moving—on the basis of individual rights and individual freedom—we’re moving to a system that is going to be less equal and less free, and certainly less equality between men and women. So I think this is a dark day for anything that would have ever called itself feminism or freedom….
They’re not thinking it all the way to the end and asking, “What happens when you don’t have a marriage institution?” What happens to women? What happens to children? What happens to your idea of equality? What happens to your idea of personal liberty, personal freedom, when women become something that’s so valued that they have to be controlled because rich men want a lot of women? That’s the dynamic that is being set into motion here.
Though the question of what the Bible has to say about polygamy is a different issue from the danger polygamy poses to a free society, I would point anyone who thinks the Bible endorses multiple wives to Mark 10:11. If marrying another woman while your divorced wife is alive can be considered by Jesus to be adultery, then He is assuming monogamy; for such a statement would make no sense if multiple wives were approved by God. Since Jesus ties His views on marriage in this passage to the creation of Adam and Eve, we can conclude that God’s ideal for marriage from the beginning was always one man and one woman; though as with divorce, it was our sin—our “hardness of heart”—that brought it about (10:2-9).
Polygamy didn’t turn out well in the Bible (just ask Jacob and Solomon), and it wouldn’t turn out well today. It fails because it’s not what we were designed for. Why on earth would we want to go back to it?