The Polygamy (aka “Religious Cohabitation”) Decision

Just a few words about the decision a few days ago in Brown v. Buhman, in which a federal district court judge in the District of Utah struck down a portion of Utah’s bigamy statute.

The Utah statute provides that:

A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.

At its core, this statute, like all bigamy statutes, criminalizes knowing efforts by a married person to enter into another state-licensed, state-sanctioned, marriage.  Such marriages are both criminally punishable and void.  (This might seem like a paradox, but it’s not.  Many illegal contracts are both punishable and void).  But in the light of Utah’s distinct history with polygamy, both the language of the statute and its interpretation by courts go a step further than most other states:  They also seek to punish persons who “purport to marry” even by entering into purely “private” or religious marriages. without trying to get a license, and without demanding any legal benefits or rights from the state.  On the other hand, the Utah courts have also held that the statute only covers relationships that hold themselves out to be “marriages” of one sort or another.  Thus, despite the “cohabitation” language, the statute does not cover simple adultery, even when the adulterers live together.  Nor does it cover someone like Hugh Hefner, who often lived with several women in one household, but was never married (or held himself out to be married) to more than one at a time.

The district court upheld what I’m calling the core application of the statute.  It really had no choice given Reynolds v. United Statesthe famous 1879 United States Supreme Court decision that denied Mormon polygamists religion-based exemptions from territorial bigamy laws.  But the district court struck down the extended application of the statute.  It held that (1) the state had no legitimate interest trying to regulate purely “religious cohabitation” and (2) that the law unconstitutionally discriminated between such “religious cohabitation” (in which the parties held themselves out to be in some sense “married”) and other extra-marital or multiple-partner arrangements.

I don’t want to discuss the opinion at length here.  I don’t want to discuss whether the district court played fast and loose with the precedents.  Nor do I want to discuss whether there should be a constitutional right to religiously-based polygamy.  

But I do think one point deserves emphasis:  This opinion is yet another instance of a serious and damaging failure, which I’ve discussed in other contexts here, here, and here, to appreciate the distinctively interwoven, intertwined, character of marriage in the United States.  Marriage as we know it carries a complex combination of governmental, religious, cultural, sociological, psychological, and maybe even “natural” meanings.  And those meanings have never been, and probably cannot be, kept hermetically sealed off from each other. Continue reading

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