After civil unions … polygamy?

Now that New Hampshire has joined a few other states in legalizing same-sex unions, some say the next battlefront over exchanging vows will be along religious lines.

People who wish to have more than one spouse, or polygamists, say their right to marriage under the freedom of religion should be recognized next.

The most common form of polygamy is called polygyny, when a man has more than one wife. The less common form is known as polyandry, when a woman has more than one husband.

The possibility that one alternative to traditional marriage will lead to another is enough to encourage some polygamists to support gay rights, although their religion may not condone homosexuality.

The same argument that the legal acceptance of polygamy will be the next exception has also been used to discourage the passage of civil unions.

Gov. John Lynch signed the civil unions bill into law on Thursday. Those who want to have more than one spouse, for religious or other reasons, say their rights also should be recognized now.


Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said he hopes someone in New Hampshire challenges the legality of civil unions.

“It’s discriminating everybody else,” he said. “What makes their choice better than another person’s?”

He admits he didn’t read the bill, and has some concerns about the scope of unions it allows. The law, however, limits civil unions to two people who are unmarried and unrelated.

Baldasaro said civil unions will “without a doubt” lead to polygamy because “we’re recognizing all marriages.”

But, he said, he has other reasons for not supporting civil unions. He doesn’t want to see the state change if a more prominent gay community moves in to take advantage of the new law, he said.

Rep. Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, sponsored the civil unions bill and he disagrees it will lead to other forms of marriage.

“Of course not,” he said. “If that were the philosophy — that something we adopted would lead to something else — we wouldn’t do anything.”

Also, he said, civil unions are not marriage. But they do allow same-sex couples to make a mutual commitment with all the same rights and responsibilities, he added.

“It’s a good thing for society for two people — who in this case happen to be the same gender — to want to care for each other, share their love together and have a civil union.”

Gov. John Lynch signed the civil unions bill into law on Thursday. Other states recognizing civil unions are Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey. Gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts. There are some legal protections for homosexual couples in a few other states, including Maine.

Mark Henkel runs TruthBearer.org, a website based in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, that promotes polygamy for Christians.

He said the government has no constitutional right to control marriage of any form, so the organization is seeking the decriminalization of polygamy. Marriage is a religious invention that predates government, Henkel said.

“The way to protect marriage is to keep government from defining it,” he said.

He said he does not believe in the “biological possibility” of gay marriage. But, he added, “They have a right to an imagination.”

Henkel said he is not asking for special rights, but for equality.

“Polygamy rights is the next civil rights battle,” he said. “We are definitely coming and we are next. We’re coming with the solution to finally end it.”

The New Hampshire chapter of the Civil Liberties Union, however, does not consider legalizing polygamy part of its battle.

Claire Ebel, the union’s executive director, points out that the civil union bill stipulates the contracts are only between two people.

“The one thing that will eventually come out of the civil unions legislation is full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples,” she said. “That is an inevitability.”

That has been the organization’s goal, she added.

“I don’t see any possibility that it would lead to anything else,” she said.

Ebel said polygamy is illegal, but it is still practiced in some enclaves in the nation and elsewhere in the world.

She said religious recognition ought to be entirely separate and distinct from state contracts.

“If religious communities want to recognize religious unions within their own faith, the state ought to have no control,” she said.

But, she added, she does not believe the state will recognize polygamous relationships as legal marriages regardless of “what steps we take” to legalize gay marriage.

Janet Bennion, an associate professor of anthropology and sociology at Lyndon State College in Lyndonville, Vt., was raised in the Mormon culture and has written about polygamous women.

She said some homosexuals and polygamous people have sought to combine their efforts in gaining recognition for alternative marriage forms.

But, it is an odd pairing.

“Polygynists typically abhor the idea of homosexuality; but to bring about legislative change, many of them are willing to preach the larger issue of marital freedoms,” she said.

She said gays and lesbians see fundamentalists as too rigid, yet they also bend to the logic of combining efforts for the larger goal of marriage rights.

But she noted, not all are joining in to support equal marriage for all. It’s a unique portion of both groups that form the coalition, she said.

“Civil unions could lead to legalizing other alternative forms,” she said in an e-mail.

She said the most recent Census Bureau survey indicates the “traditional Leave-it-to-Beaver 1950s” form of marriage is no longer prevalent. Alternative forms represent roughly half of unions in the nation, she claims.

“The argument for polygyny has merit,” she said.

Likewise, she said, to live without marrying or to live with several people in a communal style marriage has a place.

“All have merit if they allow you to achieve happiness and take care of your needs,” she said. “I think adaptation is the key concept here.”

Bennion said some situations exist where women’s rights are threatened by polygamous groups, such as when underage girls are married off.

“But by and large, women who are able to access their large female network and have a tolerable husband, will be able to make it work,” she said.”Women, of age, should be able to make the choice of who to love freely without government restraint.”

David Frankfurter, director of religious studies at the University of New Hampshire, said polygamy is part of a social structure that allows prestige to certain older men in many patriarchal cultures. It’s common in West Africa, for example.

The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) describes certain patriarchs and kings with multiple wives, he said.

Islam also sanctioned polygamy, but with the provision that wives must be treated equally, he said, making it financially burdensome to take a second or third wife in Muslim cultures.

Within the Mormon religion, the stories of polygamy in the Bible are taken as a sanction for a lifestyle in which the whole family becomes the means to salvation through imitating those domestic practices of an ancient, mythical time, Frankfurter said.

He said the Mormon church eliminated the practice in the late 19th century for “political reasons,” but many polygamous groups continue.

“Although many of these groups have become sexually abusive and totalitarian through their insularity from mainstream culture and their tendency to charismatic leadership, there are many women who participate piously and sincerely in plural marriages,” Frankfurter said in an e-mail.

He said the modern discussion of the ethics of polygamy is complicated, addressing such issues as legality and women’s rights.

Also, he said, it is a different set of issues from the discussion of gay civil unions and marriage rights.

“Only those anxious about morality in general try to link these topics,” Frankfurter said. “But those kinds of people refuse to recognize how gay marriage rights actually energize civil institutions like commitment and parenthood.”

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The Citizen, Laconia, NH, USA
June 3, 2007
Chloe Johnson
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This post was last updated: Jun. 5, 2007