IN A COURTROOM in Provo, Utah, Tom Green is on trial for polygamy. The husband of five, ex-husband of five more, and father of 29 has been charged with four counts of bigamy and one count of criminal nonsupport. In a separate trial, he will also be prosecuted for statutory rape: One of his wives, now 28, was 13 when he married her.
Green is more flamboyant than most polygamists – he and his family have flaunted their lifestyle for years on programs like "The Jerry Springer Show" and "Dateline NBC" – but he is by no means alone. There are an estimated 50,000 Utah residents living in multiple-wife households, with smaller numbers in the other Rocky Mountain states. Few of them seek publicity, but their existence is hardly a secret.
Tom Green, top center left, is being prosecuted for polygamy in Provo, Utah. Green, 52, who has five wives and at least 29 children, could get up to 25 years in prison and $25,000 in fines.
There have been plural marriages in Utah since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) arrived in the 1840s. The church abandoned polygamy in 1890 and Utah made it illegal six years later, but there have always been so-called fundamentalist Mormons who refuse to abandon the practice. For a while, the state tried to enforce its ban, but prosecutions stopped in 1953. Green is the first polygamist to be tried in Utah in nearly half a century. If convicted, he could get up to 25 years.
But it is hard to believe that any jury will send a man to prison because his family arrangements are – to use the fashionable term – nontraditional. This is 2001, even in Utah, and if there is one thing modern Americans are supposed to be clear on by now, it is that we do not punish people because their household doesn't resemble Ozzie and Harriet's.
Time and again we have been instructed that love is what makes a family, not a church ceremony or a piece of paper. Those who cling to old-fashioned definitions of legitimacy and morality are regularly upbraided for their narrow-mindedness. To show sensitivity to other people's relationships, Americans are expected to go to ever greater lengths. Two weeks ago, the Rodeph Sholom Day School in Manhattan sent its younger students home with a note announcing that Mother's Day and Father's Day were being stricken from the school calendar.
"Families in our society are now diverse and varied," wrote Cindi Samson, the director of the school's elementary division. "We are a school with many different family makeups, and we need to recognize the emotional well-being of all the children in our school…. The recognition of these holidays in a social setting may not be a positive experience for all children." Some children have only one parent at home, she later explained to a reporter. "There may be two fathers, two mothers, the mother may not have custody, it could be a grandmother."
By now everybody knows that Heather has two mommies. There are not many precincts left where anyone would refuse to recognize them as a genuine family. Why should the reaction be any different if Heather has five mommies and a daddy?
Tom Green may live with his wives and children on a patch of desert 100 miles from the nearest town, but he isn't out of touch. He knows how America talks these days.
"Does the government have the right to poke their nose in peoples' bedrooms to see who is sleeping with who?" he demands. "What business is that of the government? It's not just an issue of religious freedom of polygamy, it's the issue of freedom of everybody from government interference in their personal lives."
The American Civil Liberties Union couldn't have put it any better. In fact, the ACLU agrees: It supports the repeal of all "laws prohibiting or penalizing the practice of plural marriage." How could it not? It believes that the state must not interfere with the intimate union of consenting adults. What difference does it make if those adults are two gay men or if they are a "fundamentalist" Mormon and his five wives?
The trial in Provo is not taking place in a vacuum. Americans are in the midst of a roiling debate on whether to permit same-sex marriages. Vermont has already created a marriage equivalent for gay and lesbian couples; in many other states, "domestic partnerships" now enjoy legal recognition and benefits. At the same time, Congress and 34 states have passed laws defining "marriage" as an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman.
He who says A must say B: No one who supports same-sex marriage can logically oppose the legalization of polygamy. If it is bigotry to insist that marriage be restricted to people of the opposite sex, it must be bigotry to insist that it be restricted to just two people. In some ways, the case for plural marriage is even stronger than the case for same-sex marriage: In much of the world, after all, polygamy is both lawful and common. And while the taboo against homosexuality reaches back to the Bible, there is no biblical injunction against multiple-wife marriage.
Fifteen years ago, the demand for same-sex marriage rights was heard only on the radical fringe. Today it has become almost mainstream. Tom Green's defense of his polygamous home life may sound outlandish now. But how will it sound in 15 years, if marriage ceases to mean one man plus one woman?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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