Late this week, a judge affirmed December’s legal decision in favor of the Brown family, the polygamous clan that stars in the reality TV show Sister Wives. You can read the RNS news story here.
In essence, the way has been paved for plural marriage to be legal in Utah, as long as there are no other laws being broken: no underage marriage, rape, domestic violence, etc.
Yesterday a reporter for the International Business Times asked me questions over email about how this would affect Mormon life. Will missionaries have a harder time making converts now that polygamy is becoming legal in Utah? Will LDS leaders counter the ruling in sermons and statements to the faithful, stressing once again that Mormons cannot be polygamists? Will the ruling set the Church back years in its campaign to distance itself publicly from its polygamous past?
My answers were no, maybe, and no.
Most Mormons will meet the ruling with a shrug and a yawn.
So I was surprised when the reporter emailed me the link to the story and the headline was so fearmongering:
Utah Polygamy Ban Reversal ‘Bad News’ For LDS Church: Mormon Scholar
Really? How exactly is it bad news?
Come to find out, the one who thinks it’s bad news is my co-author of Mormonism for Dummies, Chris Bigelow.
“As polygamy becomes legal, the LDS church will likely come under pressure to accept polygamists back into its membership ranks. With the law on their side, polygamists could ratchet up a ‘civil rights’ campaign within the church along the same lines as we’re currently seeing with the church’s gays and feminists.”
First of all, it’s hardly the case that what is the law in Utah, which claims fewer than 2 million of the LDS Church’s more than 15 million adherents, will be in any way binding to Mormons in Fiji or Guatemala or South Africa. That is a myopic and provincial view of a global church.
Secondly, a Pew study cited in the article shows that 86% of Mormons consider polygamy to be morally wrong. That’s even higher than the percentage that disapprove of sex between unmarried adults (79%) or of abortion (74%). I hardly see from those numbers the makings of a full-fledged civil rights campaign.
And finally, Chris’s comments suggest an inability to separate the distinct issues of people’s civil rights under the law of the land and their ecclesiastical privileges in the LDS Church. Just because someone is legally permitted to marry under state or federal law does not mean that a church is going to be required to honor that marriage in its own religious rites.
That’s true whether the marriage is polygamous, same-sex, or in any other way different than “traditional” marriage between a man and a woman. So Chris’s final comment is frankly odd:
“I’m sure the church will rather stop performing civil marriages altogether than face increasing legal and social pressure to perform gay or polygamous marriages within its sacred temples,” Bigelow said.
Let’s be clear. No one is going to force the LDS Church to perform religious marriages in the temple for anyone it would not already approve to hold a temple recommend. That’s true whether the law in Utah allows gay marriage, polygamous marriage, or marriage between a fish and a monkey.
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