Bigamy, the act of one person getting formally married with a civil marriage license to two different people, is a crime in the US and most countries. I had always thought that polygamy was the same act carried out with three or more people. No doubt I had been swayed by the parallel with mathematics where the prefix ‘bi-’ signaled two and ‘poly-’ signaled an indeterminate number that was more than two.
So when I wrote about the recent decision in Utah where a US District Court judge ruled that cohabitation of one man with three women was not illegal, I said that the ruling did not mean that polygamy is now legal, because the man had a formal marriage license for only one of the women. The family that the judge was ruling on was a ‘plural’ family where one man was cohabiting with three women.
But Jonathan Turley, the lead attorney who argued for the right of ‘plural families’ to be free from prosecution, says that my distinction is not correct.
There does seem to be confusion about the ruling with some saying that polygamy is still not legal after the opinion. That is simply wrong. Polygamy is not the same a bigamy. One is the crime defined under cohabitation statutes of living as a plural family or with a person married to another person. The other is the crime of having two or more marriage licenses. The latter has nothing to do with the structure of your family and has almost exclusively involved people who hold themselves out (falsely) as monogamous. We always argued that the state could prosecute people who obtained more than one marriage license. Bigamy has not been an offense committed by polygamists who traditionally have one official marriage license and multiple spiritual licenses. Indeed, the law targeted polygamy with the cohabitation provision precisely because there is a difference between the two. The state fought for years to preserve this law because it reached beyond simple bigamy. Before this opinion, it was a crime for polygamists to live, as do the Browns, in a plural family. After the opinion, it is legal. This is precisely what occurred in Lawrence v. Texas where homosexual unions were a crime but then became legal when the Texas law was struck down. This decision legalizes tens of thousands of polygamous families who will no longer been viewed as criminal enterprises. They will be allowed to be open plural families. They are now legal relationships. Legality of polygamy is entirely different from recognition of plural marriages just as the legality of homosexual relations is different from the recognition of same-sex marriage.
His last sentence is a little confusing. Since it seems to imply a distinction between polygamy and plural marriages, which is what I thought was the distinction he had eliminated earlier.