Polygamy Decriminalization and Polyamorous Pagans

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Our modern society is both fascinated and repulsed by the practice of polygamy (multiple-partner marriages), particularly the practices of fundamentalist Mormons, who allow polygyny (one husband, many wives), and who have been given both sympathetic (Big Love, Sister Wives) and critical (any number of documentaries and news reports) treatment by mainstream media. While the custom of monogamy has been called “ridiculous” by some, and perhaps even unnatural by others, non-monogamous relationships have been generally been portrayed as either lurid fantasy, inherently abusive, or yet another step on a slippery slope towards cultural ruin (particularly within the context of the same-sex marriage debate). Recently, Mormon polygamists have been fighting to decriminalize what they see as a consensual relationship model, arguing that allegations of abuse within these structures should be dealt with separately from the issue of multiple-marriage. In Canada a high-profile decriminalization case is currently before the British Columbia Supreme Court, and now the multiple-partner family behind  Sister Wives has filed suit to challenge Utah’s law against bigamy.

“Attorney Jonathan Turley told the Associated Press that he believes the family’s case represents the strongest challenge to the criminalization of polygamy ever filed in federal courts. It builds on a 2003 case in which the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ sodomy laws as a violation of privacy. “We only wish to live our private lives according to our beliefs,” Brown said in the attorney’s statement.”

As this issue over polygamy, and whether or not it should be decriminalized, heats up, some Pagans are wondering how these developments will affect our interconnected communities, and whether our general acceptance of non-monogamous relationship models will cause reverberations we can’t predict. While polygamy is not a common practice within contemporary Pagan religions, polyamorous groups can often be found. Polyamory is a consensual multiple-partner relationship model that rejects the patriarchal, and sometimes abusive, forms of traditional polygamy that most people envision (polyamory widely values transparency and honesty, along with what’s known as “compersion”). Several prominent Pagans are polyamorous, including Oberon and Morning Glory ZellRaven Kaldera (author of “Pagan Polyamory”), Phaedra Bonewits, and her late husband, the author Isaac Bonewits. Around 30% of poly families identify as Pagan according to one survey conducted in 2002. So as polyamory gets drawn into the polygamy decriminalization battles, it seems likely that poly Pagans will play a role, whether chosen or not. Already, Pagan families and clergy in Canada have filed affidavits of support in the decriminalization case there, and Craig Jones, lead attorney for the B.C. Attorney General’s office, made very clear that polyamorous families would be treated like polygamous families in the eyes of the law.

When multi-partner, conjugal relationships are like “duplicative marriages,” Jones said they are criminal regardless of whether the individuals are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. Although he said ‘duplicative marriage’ need not be “exhaustively defined in advance,” Jones said all conjugal relationships involving more than two people are criminal if they go beyond “mere cohabitation” and have some form of imposed consequences related to entering or remaining in the relationship.”

In talking with several polyamorous Pagan individuals for this article I found some apprehension and mixed emotions about being seen as allied with polygamous Mormon groups. While some, like Natalie Smith, think that if “people on the ‘outside’ were to see two opposite groups like Mormons and Pagans working side-by-side towards a common goal, it is more likely to help someone think.” Others, like Jonathan Korman, feel conflicted about making common cause with polygamists.

“I can conceive of legal efforts which serve both groups’ interests, but I have difficulty imagining it politically. The movements have different cultural aims and have different relationships with the society at large. People in each movement tend to find the practices of the other distasteful, making any alliance fraught. Both groups would hesitate to focus only on tactics which support both groups. Both groups may fear that it will compromise their efforts if the public foresees benefits to the other group.”

That said, all the polyamorous Pagans I talked to supported decriminalization, and were in favor of creating a legal framework for legal multiple-partner marriages. Storm Faerywolf, an initiate of the Feri tradition of Witchcraft, noted that “adult individuals should have the right to enter into whatever contracts they choose,” while Pagan podcaster and metaphysical shop manager Devin Hunter emphasized that “in a perfect world this would not even be a question. The rights of a minority group should never be in the hands of the majority. Plural marriages should absolutely be legal within the system, and at the very least it should become decriminalized.” While none of the individuals I talked to held much credence with the slippery slope arguments put forward by figures like Archbishop Timothy Dolan, one respondent, David Shorey, did point out that the “dominant paradigm still revolves around a polar perspective,” and “those who have adopted the polar perspective will see two men or two women fitting into that.” In short, any relationship that exceeds two partners breaks the mold many are comfortable with.

Shorey’s musings on the “polar perspective” seems to tie into some further comments made by Korman, who broached the question of if this issue of multiple-partner marriages touches on a much larger question of the current legal limitations in defining relationship models outside what some may be accustomed to.

“The law currently supports a very limited vocabulary of personal relationships with enforced rights and obligations. We have legal rules for blood relations, for adoptive parents, and for married couples, but almost no other legal support for personal relationships. I believe that many people sense that this gives us too limited a vocabulary for dealing with the complexity of people’s lives but lack a framework for thinking about it. Many people who reach for same-sex civil unions as a compromise may feel open to more sophisticated ways of thinking about how the law addresses our relationships.

Polyamory constitutes a direct confrontation with questions about how we define our relationships. It says that we should not accept that our loving relationships must conform to a single standard. From that rejection of the cookie-cutter relationship standard follows hard personal and cultural questions about how we want relationships to work. Cultural conservatives find these questions frightening; without the standards they know and recognize, they fear that we would have no ethical standards at all. But many other people feel that the conception of marriage offered to them does not serve their needs but cannot imagine alternatives. Perhaps same-sex marriage has opened the door to more people thinking about these questions, creating an opportunity for a broader cultural conversation about the cultural and legal implications of polyamorous families. We may see a growing fascination with poly families coming, as people respond to them as a way to talk about the questions they encounter in their own relationships.”

As this conversation moves forward, can polyamorous Pagans bring more complexity, nuance, and new ideas to the table? So far, the lion’s share of attention has been on contrasting monogamy with abusive forms of polygamy, but shouldn’t there be room to consider that there are other models of multiple-partner families, and that blanket laws against polygamy also impact their lives as well? In defining polyamory, the poly Pagans I talked to described it as “the admission that honesty is more important than monogamy, “ that “each individual member among the relationship shares in responsibility equally,” and is “focused on the individual and their ability to have mutiple loving relationships.” This seems a far cry from the abusive compound narrative often presented when talk of decriminalizing polygamy comes up, and should not be ignored as this debate continues to gain attention.

Whether Pagans wish it or not, the coming polygamy decriminalization fight will have ramifications that will need to be addressed. Many Pagan clergy members bless multiple-partner marriages, many polyamorous families are Pagan, and in Canada, it has been made clear that distinctions between polygamy and polyamory won’t be recognized should the relationships evolve beyond mere “cohabitation.” While the Utah “Sister Wives” case may be something that Pagan communities in the United States can largely avoid, that is no promise the issue will remain dormant, especially if the Canada legal case ends up in the Canadian Supreme Court and results in polygamy being decriminalized. Many of the polyamorous Pagans I talked to said that the time for more vocal activism on this issue was now, for Devin Hunter “the time has come to become even more vocal, “ while Natalie Smith, when asked about being vocal, said that “the road to equality lies through the fields of visibility.” The question is whether Pagan leaders, clergy, and organizations will be willing or able to join them on that road.