Here is my column this morning in the New York Times. As is the case (even on my own paper, USA Today), the writer does not select the titles. In this case, “One Big, Happy Polygamous Family” seems a bit mocking. Thus, I have added my own title.
Since the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, Americans have enjoyed unprecedented freedom in their lifestyles and private relationships. The decision held that states could no longer use the criminal code for social engineering, dictating the most intimate decisions of citizens in their choice of partners and relations. But even as states have abandoned laws criminalizing homosexual and adulterous relations, they have continued to prosecute one group of consenting adults: polygamists.
Last week in Utah, one such family filed a challenge to the state’s criminal law. That family — a man, Kody Brown, and his four wives and 16 children — is the focus of a reality program on the cable channel TLC called “Sister Wives.” One of the marriages is legal and the others are what the family calls “spiritual.” They are not asking for the state to recognize their marriages. They are simply asking for the state to leave them alone.
Utah and eight other states make polygamy a crime, while 49 states have bigamy statutes that can be used to prosecute plural families. And they’re not a small population: the number of fundamentalist Mormon or Christian polygamists alone has been estimated to be as high as 50,000. When Muslim as well as nonreligious plural families are considered, the real number is likely many times greater.
The case of the Browns, for whom I am lead counsel, is a clear example of unacceptable government intrusion. The family has not been accused of child abuse or other crime, in almost a year of being under criminal investigation. With such allegations stripped away, the only thing remaining is a family that does not look like those of other Utah citizens. The question is whether that is enough to declare them criminals.
While widely disliked, if not despised, polygamy is just one form among the many types of plural relationships in our society. It is widely accepted that a person can have multiple partners and have children with such partners. But the minute that person expresses a spiritual commitment and “cohabits” with those partners, it is considered a crime.
One might expect the civil liberties community to defend those cases as a natural extension of its campaign for greater privacy and personal choice. But too many have either been silent or outright hostile to demands from polygamists for the same protections provided to other groups under Lawrence.
The reason might be strategic: some view the effort to decriminalize polygamy as a threat to the recognition of same-sex marriages or gay rights generally. After all, many who opposed the decriminalization of homosexual relations used polygamy as the culmination of a parade of horribles. In his dissent in Lawrence, Justice Antonin Scalia said the case would mean the legalization of “bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality and obscenity.”
Justice Scalia is right in one respect, though not intentionally. Homosexuals and polygamists do have a common interest: the right to be left alone as consenting adults. Otherwise he’s dead wrong. There is no spectrum of private consensual relations — there is just a right of privacy that protects all people so long as they do not harm others.
Others have opposed polygamy on the grounds that, while the Browns believe in the right of women to divorce or leave such unions, some polygamous families involve the abuse or domination of women. Of course, the government should prosecute abuse wherever it is found. But there is nothing uniquely abusive about consenting polygamous relationships. It is no more fair to prosecute the Browns because of abuse in other polygamous families than it would be to hold a conventional family liable for the hundreds of thousands of domestic violence cases each year in monogamous families.
Ultimately, the question is whether polygamy is allowed under the privacy principles articulated in Lawrence. The court did not state exclusions for unpopular relationships. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the case “does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter” but rather “two adults who, with full and mutual consent from each other, engaged in sexual practices common to a homosexual lifestyle.”
The Browns are quite similar. They want to be allowed to create a loving family according to the values of their faith.
Civil libertarians should not be scared away by the arguments of people like Justice Scalia. We should fight for privacy as an inclusive concept, benefiting everyone in the same way. Regardless of whether it is a gay or plural relationship, the struggle and the issue remains the same: the right to live your life according to your own values and faith.
Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University.
New York Times: July 20, 2011