Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Legal Victory for Reason

Polygamy. Nominally it seems like a relatively straight forward legal issue in which the government should stay out of the bedrooms of society. But it is not. In theory, polygamy could be lumped in with other legal battles over the definition of marriage such as the recent (and ongoing in some countries) battle over the inclusion of same sex marriage into the umbrella defined by legal marriage. In theory, if one person wants to have two spouses and the two spouses desire to share that person with each other, then perhaps they should have the legal right to do so. But there are some huge implications to this type of relationship which make all the difference in the world.

Firstly, there is the issue of things like rights to benefits. Imagine being an employer who provides a benefits package to your employees and, after hiring someone (and budgeting in a certain percentage overhead cost associated with average benefits costs) finding out that they had not one spousal dependant but five. Suddenly your arithemetical models used to calculate benefits costs are out the window. Inevitably, with enough of these situations, the whole model of employer paid benefits would shift. This is an important issue, but relatively minor (or non existent) reason for some of the current legal battles over polygamy.

The most important issue surrounding polygamy is abuse. The vast majority of polygamous cases that the government is interested in prosecuting involve abuse of women and children (and sometimes men). Typically, polygamy occurs in communities in which religion of some sort is deeply ingrained and entrenched, and the polygamy stems from some religious belief about marriage and relationships. Polygamy was, after all, not uncommon in the Bible, and continued to be officially sanctioned by mainstream Mormonism until relatively recent times. Modern day polygamy normally involves one man marrying many women who are typically much younger than he is, and who are often coerced into the act of marriage. They may feel as though they are taking the decision of their own volition, but that is normally because they have been raised in a culture in which they have no other expectations about marriage. Often women are married at a young age, still as teenagers, to middle aged or older men, who are commonly a distant relative of some sort (a function of the limited size of such sects). It is not hard to understand how this constitutes abuse. A girl raised to believe that polygamny is the norm, or indeed the "right" approach to marriage, and then pressured into marriage at 16 to some familiar relative whom they may have known all their life would eventually become their husband, is abuse plain and simple. One could also argue that the boys who grow up in the same culture and eventually end up being the "beneficiaries" by marrying many wives, are also victims of abuse. They know no other lifestyle and often make their choices out of religiously motivated fear.

A modern day example of a polygamous community is Bountiful, British Columbia, Canada. The community is known as a fundamentalist sect of Mormonism (i.e. a claimed sect of Christianity of sorts) in which patriarchal male figures marry multiple young women. The local government has wrestled with the legal precedence of the situation for some time, but yesterday a supreme court judgement ruled that the law against polygamy is constitutional. (See this news article).

People have freedom of religion in most Western, democratic societies. But, their freedom of religion should never infringe on someone else's right to freedom from religion, or on anyone's basic human rights. Good for the legal system in making the right decision in this clear case of abuse of society's most vulnerable. Let's hope they follow it up with some prosecutions.

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