Monday, November 17, 2008

Mormons, Polygamy, and Prop-8

I would like to take a moment to comment on the connection between the gay marriage issue and Mormon polygamy that has appeared in the media recently. It has been claimed by some that since Mormons were once persecuted for a non-standard definition of marriage, it is ironic that they should be opposed to gay marriage. This is a red herring, and misses the point entirely. There is very little that is similar about these two situations.

It is true that Mormons practiced polygamy a hundred years ago. It is also true that they were unconstitutionally persecuted for their unusual religious beliefs concerning marriage. But the major difference is that Mormons were thrown in jail for their practice of plural marriage. Mormons have never suggested that gays should be thrown in jail. If California’s prop-8 had attempted to throw gays in jail, seize all their property, or to disenfranchise anyone who belonged to a church that performed gay marriages, then and only then would the comparison be justified.

Unlike the Mormons, gays in California can still perform religions ceremonies that they can call “marriage” without any danger of being thrown in jail. The Mormons simply wanted to be left alone to marry (in religious ceremonies) who they wanted. What the gay marriage advocates want is not what the Mormon polygamists wanted. The gay marriage advocates want to change the definition of marriage for everyone and to force the rest of society to recognize their “marriages.” Mormons did not demand societal approval or recognition of their practice.

Furthermore the Mormon polygamists had a good argument for why their practice was protected by the constitution. If a Mormon married one woman legally, and then had a religious ceremony before sleeping with a second woman, he was thrown in jail. If a non-Mormon married one woman legally, and then fooled around with another woman, no one seemed to care. This is as true today is it was back then. Today, if the other woman was the man's intern, then people seem happy to have him as the President of the United States. The only difference between the two is the religious ceremony. They were prosecuting one and not the other based on whether there was a religious ceremony beforehand. That means that they were throwing the Mormon polygamists in jail for the religious ceremony alone, and for no other reason. Yet the right of the Mormon to have the religious ceremony before having relations with the second “wife” should have been protected by the constitution of the United States. The problem was one of unequal prosecution under the law based on a religious ceremony. If the government equally prosecuted all instances of infidelity, then and only then would the government have had a truly constitutional stand to persecute the early Mormon polygamists.

There can be no doubt that the constitution should protect the rights of a group to perform a religious ceremony if they want to, and to call that ceremony a “marriage” if they want to. It is not nearly as clear if the constitution gives a small minority the right to redefine marriage for the rest of society. Whatever you believe on the Prop-8 issue there can be no real comparison to the Mormon polygamy persecutions of yesteryear.