Tuesday, May 16, 2006
I'll dispense with any comments about the Great State of Utah and simply report that the Utah Supreme Court upheld today the bigamy conviction of a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- typically called "fundamentalist Mormons" -- holding that the criminal prohibition on bigamy both applied to the defendant's conduct and did not violate the federal or state constitutions.
Humor entirely aside, it is actually an opinion worth reading. At least in my mind, the statutory and constitutional arguments raised by the defendant are far from frivolous. Moreover, from a public policy perspective, why can't a person call someone whatever he wants, including his religious "wife"? Everyone in this particular case (both the husband and the "wife") knew and agreed that their "marriage" was simply a religious ceremony, and they didn't intend or attempt to enter into a civil marriage recognized by the state. What's the big deal? If I want to introduce -- or simply refer internally to -- 100 different people as my "Morman wives," which everyone recognizes to mean merely my "religious" wives, why should anyone at all care -- much less be permitted to stop me?
As a follow-up, what if I'm married, connect at a deep level with another woman, get dressed up in a tuxedo, invite her to a ceremony in which she wears a white dress, we exchange lifelong vows, and I thereafter introduce my new female friend as my Smizmar. Can the state ban that too? Can the state also ban me from telling everyone that I love X, even though it's true, because X isn't my wife? The only difference, I think, is that the name actually matters: that Smizmar is different than "wife", and that loving someone (even for a lifetime) is different than being "married" to them. But when everyone knows that a "Mormon wife" merely means "Smizmar" -- or vice-versa -- I'm not sure that this objection works.
I think that there may be potentially powerful second-level arguments that augur in favor of rejecting polygamy as a social institution, and assuredly don't support the practice in this particular case. The second wife of defendant here was his civil wife's sixteen-year old sister, and the defendant was thus properly convicted (in my mind) of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. But when everyone walking into a "marriage" ceremony is fifty years old and is fully aware of what they're doing, I don't see the big deal about letting people call another person their Mormon wife -- any more than I'd care if they called that person their Smizmar.
One final thought. Don't think that the law only applies to crazy fundamentalist Mormons. It counts as bigamy under the Utah statute to "cohabit with another person" when you're married. Remember that the next time you learn that a separated spouse has moved in with his new girlfrend before his divorce has become final. Or when you invite your mother-in-law to live with you. Hey, wait a minute. The law provides a perfect excuse to prevent the latter. "I'd love to let her move in with us, honey, but it's just that there's this statute . . . ." Forget everything I just said. I'm now all for the law. Affirmed.