Will Gay Rights Pave the Way for Decriminalizing Mormon Polygamy?

Today in the New York Times, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley makes a strong argument for decriminalizing polygamy, using the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence decision ruling state sodomy laws unconstitutional as a legal precedent. Asserting that the right to privacy should be enjoyed by all consenting adults, Turley demolishes commonplace objections to polygamy, including a rhetorical maneuver he calls “the parade of horribles” wherein polygamy opponents (like gay rights opponents) argue that decriminalizing plural marriage will lead somehow to wider acceptance for “adult incest,” “prostitution,” “fornication,” and  “bestiality.”

Turley, who represents Sister Wives reality television stars Kody Brown and his four wives, last week filed a legal challenge to the state of Utah’s anti-cohabitation statutes.

It’s fascinating to see public discourse on polygamy begin to shift in the pages of the New York Times. Just last year, here at RD, I tangled with a NY Times Book Review contributor who in a review of Brady Udall’s masterful novel The Lonely Polygamist insisted that polygamy was inherently “abhorrent.” Why? Well, the critic explained, because everyone thought so.

It’s also fascinating to consider how the Brown case may shine a light on the complicated ways non-fundamentalist Mormons have managed our own relationship to polygamy. The extent of polygamy in Mormon history is often downplayed by LDS Church public relations representatives and even some apologetic Mormon scholars. Many Mormons do not admit publicly that polygamy remains an intact part of mainstream orthodox Mormon theology, and that contemporary LDS Church policy allows widowers and some divorced men to be married for the eternities (or “sealed”) to more than one woman while widowed or divorced women may only be sealed to one man. That element of contemporary practice alone confirms for many orthodox mainstream Mormons a belief that polygamous families will be a fact of the afterlife.

With polygamy remaining a live issue in mainstream Mormon communities, many have observed that the political fight against same-sex marriage, led and (in some states) funded by Mormons has been utterly contradictory. Some Mormons have noted that the push to institute a legal definition of marriage as one man-one woman betrays Mormon history and elements of mainstream Mormon doctrine. As then-Senator Gordon Smith from Oregon (Republican, and Mormon) observed back in 2008, “Part of what I fear, as you start defining marriage—we have a long history of doing that in this country, and my Mormon pioneer ancestors were the victims of that. They were literally driven from the United States in the dead of winter for following their religious beliefs. I don’t want that coming back.” During his tenure, Smith developed a pretty respectable record on gay rights issue, excepting marriage. Under pressure, he later apologized for comparing polygamous Mormon pioneers and gay marriage. Talk about complication and contradiction.

Indeed, Turley’s use of Lawrence underscores what a strange bed Mormons made for ourselves when we took on same-sex marriage. It seems clear that the overtly patriarchal culture of religious polygamy can hardly be called “queer.” But the LGBT fight for equal standing under the law is about to play a significant role in the fate of Mormon polygamy.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.