Polygamy is illegal for sound reasons

I’ve spent more than 12 years kicking in and out of Utah’s courtrooms from St. George to Logan and everywhere in between. I’ve defended nearly 400 people and prosecuted nearly 9000.

I’ve witnessed your children, neighbors, friends, and many others parade through our criminal justice system. I’ve watched literally thousands file dejectedly past me in orange jump suits and shackles as they made their way from holding cells to courtrooms.

For years I sat at the counsel table and looked for a common thread which contributed to their unlawful behavior. Neither economic class, education, nor race provided the common link. With few exceptions, the common link was that these people didn’t have a father and a mother actively or even passively participating in their lives.

They had all committed different crimes and came from various cultures and socioeconomic levels, but nearly every one of them suffered from a lack of familial love and upbringing. I began to understand why legal scholars, church leaders and the wisest among us throughout our history have insisted that monogamy and family were the bedrock of our society.

Children need a father and a mother to rear and teach and love them. Society does a poor job of trying to teach its young the truth that with rights come responsibilities.

Legalizing polygamy redefines marriage and family. It allows not only consenting adults to marry in a polygamous relationship, but also subjects unprepared children to the rigors of such an adult relationship. To legalize polygamy also implies that men may marry men and women may marry women and even humans may marry beasts.

Instead of being a protected union recognized as the fundamental unit of society, it becomes a free for all. What relationships should we protect under the sheltering umbrella of marriage? Allowing polygamy necessarily implies protection to all other adult relationships.

The argument that government shouldn’t interfere in the personal decisions of consenting adults ignores the reality that preserving the integrity of consenting adults’ choices has never been, nor should it ever be, the standard by which to judge the legality of conduct.

No one would take seriously a legal defense for bank robbery that stated “the defendants should not be punished because they were two consenting adults choosing their actions.” Instead, we would call such consenting conduct conspiracy because the conduct, albeit consensual, hurts others. We look to the measure of hurt to society or individuals to define crime, not the degree of adult consent.

In addition to the harm that legalizing polygamy would have to the bedrock of our society, other critical considerations demand that polygamy remain illegal.

First, polygamy preys upon the weak and vulnerable. I have seen its victims. I have seen what happens to the children of even consensual adult polygamy. The young girls are manipulated into marrying early. What’s more, many of these girls are sexually prepared for their marriage in a way that only the sickest of minds can justify.

Girls are not the only victims. I have seen the psychological and emotional devastation which occurs to a young man when his father begins treating him like a competing bull in the herd instead of as a son.

Those who state that the crimes of abuse in polygamy can be prosecuted without penalizing the act of polygamy don’t know, quite frankly, what they’re talking about. Young child victims generally have no way to complain about their abuse when they live inside societies closed to the outside world. They can’t complain to teachers, church leaders, police or parents.

Second, polygamy demands financial support from government. The typical polygamist has many children and keeps most of his wives home rearing those children. The responsibility rests with one or two to make ends meet. It rarely works. And when it does not work, we must support them so that their children don’t go hungry.

Polygamists justify their reliance on the government among themselves by saying they are simply bleeding the beast of government. Their ability to manipulate and abuse government programs is exponentially greater than monogamist families because they have so many more children and wives to sign up for and receive benefits from our multitude of government programs.

Tom Green and his family received, for example, more than $690,000 in government aid in a nine-year period.

I agree that not all polygamists, sexually or otherwise, abuse children. I understand that some don’t scam the government. But the harm to society and to innocent individuals is so great that even the exceptions cannot be justified. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1879 rejected polygamy, stating that monogamy is the only acceptable form of marriage because it preserves our culture and our families.

My experience confirms the correctness of that decision.

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David O. Leavitt was the prosecutor in the Tom Green bigamy and child-rape cases. He practices law in Salt Lake City.

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