Polygamy, Religion, and the Law
Polygamy refers to the practice of marrying more than one person. While this may be an unusual idea for many people, it is hardly a novel one in the history of human civilization. In some cultures, polygamy is accepted.
For example, in some Islamic, Hindu, and even Christian countries, polygamy is a normal practice or is otherwise tolerated. Some Native American, Indigenous Australian, and Mongolian peoples practice “group marriage,” where the nuclear family consists of multiple husbands and multiple wives.
However, in many parts of the world, including the United States, polygamy is legally prohibited and even criminalized. The United Nations Human Rights Committee concluded that polygamy violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to the extent that it results in unequal treatment of a person’s right to marry in cases where polygyny—marriages with multiple wives—is allowed but polyandry—marriages with multiple husbands—is prohibited.
In America, all 50 states have some form of legal prohibition against bigamy and polygamy, either through criminalization or through legal barriers to marriage.
Polygamy and Religion
In countries where religion takes a central role in society—including government—rules concerning marriage stemmed from religious traditions and values. For instance, Jewish legal tradition did not ban polygamy outright. Exodus 21:10 of the Torah states that “if he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.”
This passage implies that multiple marriages were at least tolerated, as long as one spouse was not supported at the expense of the other. Many historians have suggested that polygamy was often a response to times of famine and hardship, especially to help widows of deceased men who were responsible for providing necessities for his family.
In Islamic legal traditions, a husband can marry multiple wives under certain circumstances. Conversely, Muslim women are generally barred from marrying numerous husbands.
In Christianity, many sects disfavor the practice of polygamy. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church considers the practice to be an offense against the dignity of marriage and in opposition to the religion’s moral values.
However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—also known as the Mormon Church or LDS Church—is infamous for its historical practice of plural marriage.
Polygamy and American Law
As mentioned earlier, bigamy and polygamy are considered crimes in most, if not all, 50 states in America. In its early years, the Mormon religion clashed with the U.S. federal government during the 19th century. Members of the Mormon religion ventured to new U.S. territories in the west, eventually settling in the Utah territory.
As these territories were governed by the U.S. federal government, the Mormon Church found themselves at odds with federal authorities. Eventually, Mormon settlers and the federal government engaged in armed conflict in the Utah War, between 1857 and 1858.
Although the conflict was short, with no significant historic battles, its resolution did not mean the end of U.S. antagonism against the Mormon settlers. In the aftermath following the Utah War, several federal laws were enacted, criminalizing the practice of plural marriage and limiting the property rights of the Mormon Church. This led to arrests and convictions of many Mormon leaders.
Today, plural marriage is officially banned by the LDS Church, although some smaller sects may continue to practice it in secrecy. Some of the federal laws that were enacted to prohibit polygamy remain in effect today.
Many states also have criminal prohibitions against polygamy. Additionally, state laws generally invalidate subsequent marriages unless the first marriage was already dissolved in a divorce.
Some people have tried to argue that laws against polygamy violate their constitutional right to freedom of religion. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
However, many American courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have held that such laws do not violate an individual’s right to the free exercise of religion, reasoning that a law that prohibits some immoral act may still be valid even if the prohibited act is coincidentally a rite of one’s faith.
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