It's not our place to persecute polygamists

September 04, 2001|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Let's say Tom Green is a handsome young NBA star with a lusty nature and some irresponsible habits. He has prolonged sexual relationships with several different women, and over the years he manages to father a couple dozen children.

In those circumstances, no one would be surprised if Mr. Green's conduct earned him widespread scorn and ridicule. But we'd be very surprised if it got him sent to jail.

The real Tom Green is a bit different. He's a pot-bellied, 53-year-old salesman, not a glamorous professional athlete. Instead of having affairs with an assortment of partners, he's been living with five different wives in a polygamous household in the Utah desert, along with most of their 29 children. And no one seems shocked that last week, a Utah court sentenced him to five years in prison on four counts of bigamy.

Mr. Green is a so-called Mormon fundamentalist who thinks he has a religious duty to practice "plural marriage," as the original Mormons who settled the state did. Utah, however, had to ban polygamy as a condition of joining the United States, and Mr. Green's outspoken defiance of the law got him in trouble with the local prosecutor.

In an era of sexual freedom, there's something quaint about prosecuting someone because he insists on formalizing his relationships with multiple women and the children he's fathered with them. We generally no longer enforce laws against fornication, adultery and sodomy, which are regarded as infringements on the right of people to live their lives as they choose. Still, though a man may have five girlfriends, the law says spouses are one to a customer.

Mr. Green is not the ideal poster boy for efforts to repeal such policies. Many of his wives were 14 or 15 years old when they married him, and he faces child rape charges because one of them allegedly was only 13 when he impregnated her. Besides the bigamy counts, he was convicted of failing to support his children and has to reimburse the state nearly $80,000.

If Mr. Green is a child molester and welfare cheat, he ought to be prosecuted for those offenses. There is no good reason to put somebody in jail merely for living openly with more than one spouse.

Laws against bigamy almost always address an entirely different form of misconduct: fraud. Most men who are prosecuted for bigamy have two or more wives who don't know about each other.

In those cases, the crime has victims who were grossly deceived. But when a man whose religion dictates plural marriage embarks on matrimony with women who accept the deal as consenting adults, their living arrangements should be treated as their own affair.

Denying marriage to gays and polygamists only discourages responsible adult behavior. How does society gain from that?

Likewise, the ban on polygamy doesn't prevent thousands of polygamists from practicing their beliefs in the shadows, where they won't attract official scrutiny. By forcing them underground, in fact, the law breeds the very abuses decried by opponents, since the victims may fear that going to authorities will destroy the family.

It's not even clear that the ban on polygamy is constitutional. The Supreme Court has struck down laws against contraceptive sales and abortion because they intrude on intimate personal decisions involving family, marriage and procreation. Polygamy laws make the same intrusion into this private realm.

Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has suggested as much. He dissented from a 1996 decision that struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment barring local governments from adopting gay-rights laws because it targeted one group for unfavorable treatment. Polygamists, argued Mr. Scalia, have been singled out "for much more severe treatment" than gays, and under the court's reasoning, "polygamy must be permitted."

The Supreme Court and the American public may take some time to get used to the idea of letting people choose such arrangements. But someday we may recognize that if people want to engage in polygamy, it's really not our business to stop them.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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