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Changing laws on family values

Melvin B. Miller
Changing laws on family values
“Man, one wife is all I can handle.”

In their youth, America’s elders were subjected to more demanding sexual mores than are usual today. Back then it was inappropriate for a young woman of marriageable age to be alone with a man in a private place. Today, even distinguished colleges and universities facilitate encounters between genders with the establishment of coed dorms. Despite many other changes in the sexual mores, rules against polygamy have been unyielding, until recently.

A once common point of view is that marriage is the only socially sanctioned environment for sexual intimacy. Several states even permitted common law marriage, a contractual agreement between the parties without a license from the state. In 1877, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such marriages are valid unless they are specifically prohibited by the state. Today, 15 states and the District of Columbia still permit common law marriage.

With cohabitation now so prevalent, the issue has less importance. According to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2006 and 2010, 48 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 took up residence with a man who was not related. It appears that the moral stigma against cohabiting couples is gone.

However, the addition of another woman to the couple creates a new legal mix. One man and two women, or cohabitants, creates the appearance of polygamy. The U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Act in 1862 to outlaw polygamy, and the Edmunds Act in 1882 made bigamy a felony. The various states also passed laws making bigamy a crime.

In the recent case of Kody Brown vs. Utah, Federal District Court Judge Clark Waddoups of Utah ruled that Utah’s law goes too far. It violates the plaintiff’s right of free expression of religion as well as other constitutional rights such as the right of privacy that has been enunciated by the courts in recent years. Brown is the husband in a polygamous family in the reality television show, “Sister Wives.”

Brown and his four wives and 17 children are members of the Apostolic United Bretheren Church that advocates polygamy. Even many countries where Islam is a dominant religion that allows polygamy have banned or restricted it. There is a growing belief around the world that polygamy is a violation of the rights of women.

The recent decision in the Utah federal court concludes that bigamy cannot be implied from cohabitation when there are no multiple legal marriages. If this decision survives on appeal, it might lead to greater tolerance of polygamy in the U.S. Times change. Those who are old enough can remember a time when living together without marriage was once morally and socially unacceptable.