Polygamy: Agreements And Disagreements

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Throughout my time in college, I have found there is a multitude of literature on the topic of polygamy. So, when one finds themselves embarking on trying to become an expert, there are many different sides to the story and angles to take into consideration. Due to the fact polygamy is such a controversial topic in the United States, there are multiple different areas to evaluate, religious freedom constitutional rights, ethics, and human rights are some of the most debated areas. In this essay, I will explain the sources I have chosen as most reliable and applicable to my problem of polygamy. I will examine the credibility of each source and explain how it makes me an “expert” on this topic.

My first source is a writing from the journal Philosophical Topics, titled “The Problem with Polygamy”. In this writing, the author Thom Brooks dives into the debate of whether polygamy is lawful ethically. According to his website, thrombooks.info, Brooks is the Dean and Professor of Law and Government at Durham Law School in England and he is also an Associate Member in the Department of Philosophy (Thom brooks). In “The Problem with Polygamy”, Brooks states, “The problem with polygamy is primarily that it is a structurally inegalitarian practice in both theory and fact” (Brooks 109). Brooks makes this statement using his background in law and philosophy by examining the ethicality of polygamy through a legal and philosophical understanding. This source gives me insight into the philosophical debate against the decriminalization of polygamy and how to breaches society's view of ethical relationships.

The next source examines the major debates that have sprung up since Utah passed their 1935 anti-cohabitation laws. Dr. Sarah Song, Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of this source, “Polygamy Today: A Case for Qualified Recognition.' This source, that was originally published in The Polygamy Question, edited by Janet Bennion and Lisa Fishbayn Joffee. Song’s primary focus of research is the free exercise of religion, and culture, gender, and equality (polisci.berkeley.edu). This source helps make me an expert in the topic of polygamy because of the comparison between the controversy’s polygamy was causing in the 1940s and 1950s compared to the controversies now in the 21st century. Song explains the Short Creek Raid of 1953 in Arizona polygamists and the factors leading up to it. Song explains the controversial government raid on a polygamous community in Short Creek, Arizona in 1953 and impact it had on American society.

From the same book, The Polygamy Question, edited by Janet Bennion and Lisa Fishbayn Joffee, I found another article that offers a wide range of information on my topic. Written by Martha Bailey, a professor of Law at Queen’s University in Ontario, “Should Polygamy be a Crime?” investigates the Canadian polygamy cases of 2009. Bailey states, “Instead of considering whether it is constitutionally permissible for Canada to criminalize polygamy, I assess the wisdom of criminalization” (Bailey 211). I like this approach to the debate because it assesses things from a purely unbiased viewpoint. Bailey’s view offers the point that oftentimes when one views the case of polygamy the debate is either legal or illegal, right or wrong, but tends to forget about the humanity behind the cases. Bailey goes on to say that Canada should, “focus on addressing directly the harms often associated with polygamy” (Bailey 211). Professor Martha Bailey specializes in international family law which often is associated with cases of polygamy due to the large family structures (Bennion and Joffee 252).

Also, from the same book edited by Janet Bennion and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, The Polygamy Question, I came across an article titled, “The Effect of Polygyny on Women, Children, and the State”. This article was written by authors Rose McDermott and Jonathan Cowden, and centers around the statistical effects of women and children within polygamous communities. Rose McDermott works for Brown University as a professor of political science and was an expert witness for the 2011 British Columbia polygamy trial (Bennion and Joffe 253). Jonathan Cowden is a Yale University PhD graduate who has written many articles over various human rights and social justice issues (Bennion and Joffe 252). I chose this article because I like the highlights of children rights and the statistics it shows. I feel like often children come up in the debate of polygamy but mostly center around child marriages and abuse. I think McDermott and Cowden take a great approach adding in different scenarios where abuse if present.

Published in the UCLA Women’s Law Journal in 2017, UCLA graduate and current practicing attorney, Sarah Rogozen wrote “Prioritizing Diversity and Autonomy in the Polygamy Legalization Debate.” In this source, Rogozen lays out the major differences in the polygamy debate, extrapolates the differences between how society treats polyamory versus polygamy, and explains where polygamy fits into State RFRAs and the constitution. I believe the section dedicated to RFRA is essential information that helps in the debate of polygamy. In her writing, Rogozen intends to highlight a few things, creating space for personal judgement, religious freedom, diversity and autonomy (Rogozen 109). This article is a great asset because of the legal standpoint. Rogozen brings up religious freedom cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014), that are recent and are often brought up when dealing with polygamy.

Because the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014) was such an influential court case on American society, my last source devotes itself to understanding the ability to criminalize polygamy now that the case has passed. “Can We Still Criminalize Polygamy: Strict Scrutiny of Polygamy Laws Under State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts After Hobby Lobby”, written by Maura Irene Strassberg, analyzes the Hobby Lobby case and evaluates what the next steps can include when dealing with the topic of religious polygamy. Law Professor Maura Irene Strassberg specializes in ethics and sexuality law at Drake Law School in Iowa (drake.edu). Strassberg develops her writing around the ethical reasonings behind each argument of the debate, in order to decipher if criminalizing polygamy is ethical and constitutional.


Though the topic of polygamy is quite controversial in the united states, dating back to its introduction by the LDS Church in the 1830s, there are many points of agreement throughout scholars on both sides. One of the agreements is that there is a lack of accountability for the men in these polygamous communities. In polygamous communities, it is not uncommon to have a man with three or more wives, each bringing him multiple children. Since these communities often practice traditional gender roles, i.e. man works and provides income, while the woman tends the home and children, there is often a lack of income, thus meaning the man is unable to properly support his family. This often leads to women having to apply as a single mother in order to receive money from the government in order to sufficiently care for their children (Strassberg 1623). Though many argue that the “welfare fraud” and exploitation of government money is a completely corrupt aspect of polygamy, the more debated and interesting aspect to look at is why is this happening. According to Stassberg:

“It is not the criminalization of polygamy that leads women to apply… it is a lack of or insufficient support from fathers of their children, either because the fathers refuse to use their resources for the support of their children or because they lack the resources to support their children” (Strassberg 1623).

The lack of accountability within these communities leave women and children to have to risk persecution and ask for government assistance. Rogozen touches on this when she discusses the parental struggle to support a large family on top of the anti-polygamy laws which only escalates the issue further. “Parents struggle with state parenting laws, sometimes losing custody of their children when the courts rule polyamorous family structure is not in the child’s best interest” (Rogozen 124). Having to risk their entire family in order to put food on the table can seem extreme, but it is reality when comes to polygamous relationships.

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Another main agreement is that the current polygamy laws are forcing polygamist families into isolation and away from government regulation. Law Professor Maura Irene Strassberg points out, “it is the criminalization of polygamy itself that makes abuse more likely, by motivating polygamists to locate in isolated rural environments where women have less ability to find supportive law enforcement, and also are unable to just leave” (Strassberg 1622). The debate of fear of persecution and abuse is often controversial and will be discussed later. I believe there is significance in evaluating what isolation can cause for a group of likeminded fundamentalist people. One of the most critical aspects of government is its regulation of law. When communities isolate themselves from government reach, law gets taken into their own hands. Sarah Rogozen even goes far to say that the criminalization of polygamy benefits groups like the Fundamentalist Church of Later-Day Saints because, “abusers benefit from their victims’ isolation” (Rogozen 143). This benefit means they have a deeper control over their victims that being part of society would, in most cases, intervene. One aspect that I believe feeds on the isolation agreement is the issue of children within these polygamous communities, which brings us to the next major agreement within the sources.

Many of my sources agree that polygamy is a source of abuse to women and children. One aspect of the abuse comes from the lack of education in their society. Due to the fact they are isolated from society and more importantly, government regulated education, their futures are jeopardized. Authors Rose McDermott and Jonathan Cowden offer statistics of children within these polygamous communities.

“Girls are less likely to receive an education in primary or secondary school as polygyny become more frequent. The same holds true of boys as well. Boys are less likely to receive either primary or secondary school education in polygynous societies than in those raised by their monogamous counterparts” (Cowden and McDermott 127).

The lack of government regulated education leads to children lacking in areas of study such as science and history. Children are also pulled out of school at young ages and the education they do receive often is by under qualified people within the community. Professor Strassberg raises this issue as well, claiming that due to this lower standard of education, men and women within these communities are lacking the knowledge and skills to enter the work force (Strassberg 1631). This becomes significant when looking at the productivity of life within the community and if these members ever wanted to leave the community. A lack of education and transferable skills is almost debilitating when entering the outside world, making it extremely difficult to find work and therefore pay for the essentials they would need to survive outside their community.


Throughout my sources I have found multiple different disagreements between the writers. One of the most controversial aspects when looking into the legalization or decriminalization centers around the reporting of abuse. Though as seen above, it is primarily agreed upon that abuse is often an issue within polygamist relationships. But, when thinking about the topic of abuse, it often gets split when the proposition of legalization or decriminalization of polygamy arises. Many believe that the legalization/ decriminalization of polygamy would enable women to have an outlet to report their abuse. Dr. Sarah Song brings to light that due to the current anti-polygamy laws, polygamous wives and children are in fear of persecution and the laws “discourage a group’s most vulnerable members from reporting abuse” (Song 204-205). The theory is, if the fear of persecution is no longer present, marginalized members of the community would be more willing to speak out when abuse is occurring. Though this theory sounds reasonable, critics claim that due to the fact “polygamy is a structurally inegalitarian practice” (Brooks 118), marginalized members, like women, are still not likely to report abuse out of fear of their own group. If this theory was correct, that would mean the power would be distributed even further from the marginalized group, allowing abuse perpetrators to continue without persecution.

Another disagreement that has come up within my research is that of women’s abilities and freedoms within polygamous communities. In “The Problem with Polygamy”, author Thom Brooks points out, “Women are typically subservient to their husbands who hold their wives primarily responsible for childbearing… women may also lack control over their ability to seek employment” (Brooks 111- 112). This line of thinking primarily views women as oppressed within their marriages, though this seems to be essentializing the polygamous wife experience, which, in this case could seems to only be oppressing them further. The counter argument comes from the view of women who themselves found power within their polygamous marriages. There are women within these communities who do in fact advocate for the decriminalization of polygamy. In her writing “Polygamy Today: A Case for Qualified Recognition' Dr. Sarah Song mentions a polygamy advocacy group named the Women’s Religious Liberties Union. This group of women advocate for polygamy on the grounds that it gives women freedom from their wifely and motherly duties because of their ability to share the load with other wives (Song 201). Though every marriage within these communities are organized differently, one could assume these women had the freedom to pursue outside careers or activities. One could argue that this means women in polygamous marriages had more accessibility to pursue life outside of the home than that of monogamous relationships due to childcare accessibility.

The last major disagreement is the justification under the religious freedom. In 1874 polygamist George Reynolds challenged the government opposition of polygamy, claiming it is his religious freedom to practice, creating the famous court case Reynolds v. United States. The Supreme Court came to the decision that while it is okay to believe in a practice, it is not justifiable to act on it if it is a criminal act (Rogozen 120). This case often comes up when people are anti-polygamy and often the argument is that if the US was to retract Reynolds v. United States, it would lead to more causes such as human sacrifice or honor killings. According to writer Thom Brooks, “Sanctioning polygamy would be akin to legalizing acts such as human sacrifice or even sati” (Brooks 111). Though this thought seems extreme, it is not extreme to consider where “religious freedom” draws its line. The counter argument is that the practice is essential to these people’s faith. Law professor Maura Strasserg explains in her writing Can We Still Criminalize Polygamy: Strict Scrutiny of Polygamy Laws Under State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts After Hobby Lobby”, the importance of practice in terms of salvation.

“For Fundamentalist Mormons, polygamous marriages are the only marriages that are “celestial” and offer the possibility for eternal life… To deny a Fundamentalist Mormon the opportunity to enter into polygamous marriage is, therefore, to prevent both service to God and access to his own exaltation” (Strassberg 1612).

When evaluating Strassberg’s counterargument the main point she is making is that polygamy, for those who practice, is the decision between their life here on earth and their perceived eternal life in heaven. Contemplating temporary life on earth versus eternal salvation, it doesn’t seem fair to make someone choose that when there are many other religions that get to reach their salvation without any government regulation or interference.

In conclusion, there were many different sources to evaluate when researching the topic of legalization of polygamy. Among those, there were multiple agreements and disagreements that help create a more complete understanding of the topic as a whole. Due to the sources I found, I believe I have become more educated and more of an expert on the topic.

Works Cited

  1. Bailey, Martha. “Should Polygamy be a Crime?” The Polygamy Question, edited by Janet Bennion and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, University Press of Colorado, 2016, pp. 210–227.
  2. Bennion, Janet, and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, editors. The Polygamy Question. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016.
  3. Brooks, Thom. “The Problem with Polygamy.” Philosophical Topics, vol. 37, no. 2, 2009, pp. 109–122.
  4. drake.edu. “Maura Strassberg Profile.” Drake University, www.drake.edu/law/facstaff/directory/maura-strassberg/.
  5. McDermott, Rose, and Jonathan Cowden. “The Effect of Polygyny on Women, Children, and the State.” The Polygamy Question, edited by Janet Bennion and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 2016, pp. 115–154.
  6. polisci.berkeley.edu. “Sarah Song.” Sarah Song | UC Berkeley Political Science, polisci.berkeley.edu/people/person/sarah-song. Accessed 4 March 2020.
  7. Rogozen, Sarah. “Prioritizing Diversity and Autonomy in the Polygamy Legalization Debate.” UCLA Women’s Law Journal, vol. 24, no. 2, September 2017, pp. 107–149.
  8. Song, Sarah. “Polygamy Today: A Case for Qualified Recognition.” The Polygamy Question, edited by Janet Bennion and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, Boulder University Press of Colorado, 2016, pp. 199–209.
  9. Strassberg, Maura Irene. “Can We Still Criminalize Polygamy: Strict Scrutiny of Polygamy Laws under State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts After Hobby Lobby.” University of Illinois Law Review, vol. 2016, no. 4, Aug. 2016, pp. 1605–1649.
  10. Thom Brooks. Thom Brooks, 2 Mar. 2020, www.thombrooks.info/. Accessed 4 March 2020.
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