A Slippery Slope to What?

07Nov12

Here in Washington we had a pivotal vote yesterday, Referendum 74, which (if approved) will legalize civil marriage between same-sex couples. (The results are running close, and Washington’s ‘all-absentee’ voting just requires ballots to be postmarked by election date, meaning that votes will still be coming in to auditors’ offices for a couple days. If the results hold, Washington will join Maine and Maryland as the first three states to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote.) The referendum’s opponents pose the regular arguments: “if I’m not allowed to discriminate, then I’m being oppressed;” “marriage is meant for procreation;” and “it’s against my religion.” There are pretty standard counter-arguments to those that I won’t go into now. A local news article said that one opponent, “is worried that if it passes, it would be difficult to teach her children about marriage because she won’t be able to see her definition reflected in society.” (Really, if gay couples can marry, then straight couples will stop?) One standard argument that is treated with more seriousness than it deserves is the ‘slippery slope’ argument, that same-sex marriage will lead to people marrying animals or inanimate objects, adults marrying children, or to polygamy.

The first of these claims is downright ludicrous — it’s the Pee Wee Herman claim; clearly those who cannot speak cannot be consenting adults. The second claim is more concerning, partly because of cases like that of Warren Jeffs, who thought that teen-aged and pre-teen girls were capable of adult consent. In the end, so long as mature consent is required, we can keep from giving pedophiles a marriage loophole.

This leaves polygamy, and to the possibility that same-sex marriage might lead to polygamy, I say, “so what?”  As I discussed in another post, marriage is two institutions entered in a single ceremony in the United States, the civil institution, and the religious institution. The joint entry of the two institutions leads to some confusion about how the two institutions fit together, with people often claiming religious foundation for the civil institution. Unfortunately for them, the civil institution must remain separate from the religious one, lest the civil government establish one denomination (or group of denominations) above the others.

Because polygamy has been illegal in the United States since the mid-19th century, polygamous relationships are by necessity underground. However, they do come to light now and again. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the organization most closely linked to polygamy in most people’s minds, but I remember a story from the 1990s of a married celebrity couple who had ‘married’ one of their employees. I can’t imagine how someone would find an accurate estimate of the number of polygamous marriages in the United States.

This leads me to wonder how many polygamous marriages are being subsidized with benefits. Spouses in unregistered marriages might be able to claim themselves and their children to claim benefits.

If the civil institution of marriage exists to provide particular rights and benefits to adults who have a shared commitment to support each other (and any progeny they may have) for the rest of their lives (despite the number of times that commitment fails), then polygamy could be accommodated under law. We would need to take some precautions to ensure the rights of all parties:

  • Adult, informed consent would need to be required, preferably established during confidential premarital counseling.
  • An arrangement for spousal benefits (including joint property, inheritance in lieu of a will, retirement, and insurance benefits.
  • Divorce. Sadly, divorce must be accounted for, especially given the complexity inherent in three or more interlocking relationships.

Please, do not take any of what I have said to imply an endorsement of polygamy as an institution. From everything that I have seen, the position of women in polygynous relationships is usually unequal, inferior, and servile. (And polyandrous relationships are incredibly rare.) I am personally very happy in my monogamous marriage. On the other hand, I don’t imagine myself to be so infallible and omniscient as to know what relationships are best for everyone.

From where I sit, it sure looks like the marriage equality opponents’ slippery slope leads to: gay people marrying, two dead ends, and nothing exciting.

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