In the last week, there has been a big change in marriage equality in Oklahoma. With the Supreme Court's decision to not take up appeals from several states, the Court has made same-sex marriage a reality for Oklahomans. I am overjoyed that my gay friends can now marry the people they love!
Yet, I believe this should raise a few questions for the polyamory community:
- What does this mean for the definition of marriage in America?
- Should polyamorists rally for the right to marry multiple partners?
Personally, I believe that marriage is made up of 2 different facets. One is a legal function. The other is a religious ceremony. To put it another way, there is a separation between the marriage contract and the marriage ceremony. I can't argue that we should force any religion to officiate a marriage ceremony if it violates their concept of marriage so that point is moot.
However, I think that the legal function can be argued. The marriage contract is just that - a contract. Yes, it is prettied-up in a flowery language but it is nothing more than a contract that merges assets and where each person assumes responsibility for the other marriage partner and the success of the marriage partnership.
Under this idea, why is the marriage contract limited to just 2 people? Contracts with multiple partners are drawn up all the time. Personally, I am involved in multiple business contracts that involve multiple people and entities. Further, corporations are nothing more than contracts between multiple people with certain rights of ownership of assets, responsibility and liability.
Did I just take romance out of the idea of marriage? Well, yes I did. Because there is no romance in a contract.
But let's think about this: If a corporation or legal partnership can have the same functions as a marriage, do we really need a marriage between multiple partners? I believe there is merit in having a marriage between multiple partners. Our legal system uses "marriage" as a sort of umbrella idea or shorthand for certain legal areas. For example, if my partner was in the hospital, our marriage gives me certain rights because of the "marriage umbrella". Can those same rights be obtained through a corporate approach? Most likely yes. However, hospitals are not prepared to review contracts to determine legal rights. If you are married, the word "married" automatically gives you certain rights. Being "contractually responsible" is going to involve lawyers and legal departments - meanwhile precious time is being wasted.
However, it's not just about marriage. What about divorce? Let's say that Alice, Bob and Dave are married. Alice decides that she wants out of the marriage. How does the division of assets work? What if there were kids involved? No, I'm not arguing "WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?!!!" I am asking the question of parental responsibility and rights such as child support, etc. The legal umbrella of marriage often gives or restricts parental rights.
Let's also think about a situation where Alice, Bob and Dave are married. Dave has been dating Chelsea for a year and wants to bring her into the marriage. Alice and Dave agree to it, but Bob doesn't want to be married to Chelsea as well. How does that work out? Is it as simple as majority rule or do we require unanimity among the partners?
The legal history of plural marriage is an exercise in Mormon history. It starts with Reynolds v. United States which upheld the federal ban on polygamy. It has universally been upheld through various challenges over the last 125 years however that is changing. A case brought by Kody Brown (of the Sister Wives TV show) challenging the Utah ban on cohabitation was upheld by a federal judge as violating the Browns' 1st and 14th Amendment rights. The decision is likely to be appealed and is fairly narrow in scope, but hopefully it is a place to start the conversation.
So where do I stand? Well, it's complicated. I believe that polyamorists should have the right to marry whomever they choose. Yet, the system we have is fraught with potholes and legal gray areas and it would be difficult to force a plural marriage structure into that system.
But, ultimately the recent actions of the Supreme Court give me hope.
And hope is where it all starts.