23 June 2010

Gay Marriage: The Polygamy Argument

Stephen Kershnar
Gay Marriage and Polygamy
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 15, 2010

In 2008, California voters passed ballot initiative Proposition 8. It amended the California constitution to prohibit gay marriage. Its text stated, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” It passed 52% to 48%. In California, a federal judge is currently hearing a case on whether Proposition 8 is Constitutional. The case will likely to be appealed to the Ninth Circuit and then the Supreme Court.

The passage of Proposition 8 is part of a pattern. Over the past few decades, forty-one states and the federal government have adopted laws that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In all thirty-one states in which the marriage issue has been put to a general vote, same-sex marriage lost. It is legal in only five states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont) and the District of Columbia.

The proposition was a response to the California Supreme Court’s ruling that same sex couples have the right to marry under the California constitution. The battle over Proposition 8 shook the state. Proponents and opponents raised huge sums of money ($39.9 million and $43.3 million respectively). Religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), various conservative groups like Focus on the Family, and political figures like John McCain and Newt Gingrich supported it. The Mormons carried much of the load, pouring in money and a sizable volunteer army. All ten of the state’s largest newspapers opposed it, as did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Barack Obama, and an array of other groups, notably Jewish, Episcopalian, and Unitarian ones.

An issue here is whether the arguments for legalizing gay marriage also support legalizing plural marriage. Plural marriage can consist of different relationships, such as one man and several women (polygamy), one women and several men, lesbian groups, multiple heterosexual men and women, multiple bisexual men and women, and so on.

There are two interesting arguments for gay marriage. The first argument is that every person has a fundamental right to marry the person of his choice. This fundamental right might rest on his having the more basic right to shape his own life according to self-chosen principles. Alternatively, it might rest on his having a more basic right to be treated similarly to others with regard to state benefits, at least when he is not directly harming someone else. To my mind, this first argument is convincing.

The second argument is that gay marriage will benefit the gay people who are married, their children, and the rest of society. The argument sometime rests on the claim that gay marriage will neither lessen the rate at which men and women marry, nor harm the children of heterosexual marriages. The empirical argument is messy. One issue is whether children raised by homosexual couples are as well-adjusted as those raised by heterosexual couples. The American Psychological Association claims that they are, but others (for example, the dissenting judges in the landmark Massachusetts case on gay marriage) argue that the studies conflict and as a group they are inconclusive. Given that gay couples are already raising hundreds of thousands of children, another issue is whether having their parents marry will benefit them than if they do not.

The first argument supports plural marriage. If people have a fundamental right to marry who they want then this includes not merely a member of the same sex, but others as well. Richard Posner, a 7th Circuit Judge, points out that if a woman who wants to be a polygamist’s second wife is prevented from doing so, then her fundamental right is violated.

The second argument less clearly supports plural marriage. Various commentators, such as William Saletan of Slate.com, claim that plural marriage contains harmful features not present in monogamous marriages: instability, sexual jealousy, and stress. Cathy Young, writing in Reason Magazine, claims that the availability of plural marriages would add anxiety and unhealthy pressure to current marriages by giving spouses more options. However, their claims are unsupported by any scientific studies. They rely on a few anecdotes and the plural of anecdote is not data (sadly, not my line). Various commentators in the first half of the 20th Century might have similarly relied on anecdotes to explain why interracial marriage is a bad idea. In addition, it should not surprise us if people who engage in an illegal activity have more problems than do those who would engage in it were it legal.

Even if there were data that supported these claims, it is not clear what follows. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Hongyu Wang and others found that interracial marriages are significantly more likely to end in divorce (24% more likely) and last less long when they do than in-group marriages. If divorce is harmful to both the divorced couple and their kids and if this sort of data does not provide a reason to prohibit interracial marriage, then it is not clear why it would do so for plural marriage.

Plural marriage probably has a longer history than gay marriage. It is likely that human beings evolved in polygamist groups, although it is not clear if this involved anything like marriage. In addition, law professor Jonathan Turley argues that in the Bible, leading figures like Abraham, David, Jacob, and Solomon were polygamists and favored by God. It is also not clear that plural marriage has more problems with infidelity than does gay marriage. Stanley Kurtz, writing in The Weekly Standard, cites West Virginia University sociologist Gretchen Stiers and University of Vermont psychologists Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solomon to support the claim that gay male marriages are far less monogamous than heterosexual ones and that the former place less emphasis on monogamy.

It is irrelevant whether more people view plural marriage negatively than view gay marriage negatively. Our freedom does not rest on a popularity contest.

If the right-based argument for gay marriage is sound, then a similar argument applies to plural marriage. If one adopts the benefit argument for gay marriage, then there is no substitute for scientific study. The same is true for plural marriage. Mere anecdotes simply will not do. The solution that makes these issues go away is for the government to get out of the marriage business, but there is no movement in this direction.