Polygamy Poll: What are your thoughts?

By: Mormon Heretic
February 3, 2014

faMUPThe Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 disenfranchised the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The law was enacted by Congress to punish the church for practicing polygamy. The church challenged the law, but following an 1890 ruling in which the law was declared constitutional, Wilford Woodruff issued Official Declaration 1 (also known as “The Manifesto”) in which he stated

Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.

… I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.

Recently Kody Brown won a case in Utah in which polygamy was de-criminalized. What are your thoughts concerning polygamy?

What are your thought about the legality of polygamy?

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34 Responses to Polygamy Poll: What are your thoughts?

  1. ji on February 3, 2014 at 4:27 AM

    As I understand, the court decriminalized religious-based polygamy ONLY BECAUSE non-religious-based cohabitation is not prosecuted. It’s a matter of fairness — or not prosecuting one person (the religious one) while not prosecuting the non-religious shacker.

    Under that court’s decision, a marriage is still one man and one woman. In the polygamous case at issue, the man was legally married to one woman and not married to the other women (or, non-legally (only religiously) wed to the other women, which doesn’t really count). Shacking, if you will. So long as prosecutors in Utah don’t prosecute non-religious shackers, it is unfair to target they only religious shackers, because the prosecutions are based on the offender’s religion, not the actions they are committing. After all, all those other “marriages” are not marriages. And after the court’s decision, those people still cannot go get licenses to civilly solemnize the other marriages — they are still illegal (but now non-prosecutable) marriages.

    So polygamy is still illegal.

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  2. New Iconoclast on February 3, 2014 at 7:56 AM

    It still isn’t legal in Utah, or any other state, to be married to more than one other person. That should change; it should be none of the government’s business what people decide to enter into as marital arrangements. That’s between them and God, and if government wants to recognize those arrangements with certain tax breaks because they are felt to further certain societal goals, that’s up to you and your Congresscritter.

    If LDS folks, or fundamentalists, or whoever, want to keep certain groups out of the marriage arrangement, they should be required to hone their moral suasion skills and stop counting on the government to do their heavy lifting for them. You win no points for righteousness if you’re forced to follow the rules for fear of the penalties.

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  3. mormon heretic on February 3, 2014 at 8:05 AM

    ji, I’m not disagreeing with you, but the 1890 Church would have been VERY happy to have a similar ruling in 1890. The Manifesto never would have been issued if the church had received such a favorable ruling. They were arguing what you’re saying. None of the polygamist marriages were ever considered legal. It’s NEVER been legal to get 2 marriage licenses at the same time.

    I’m curious to hear people’s justifications for how they voted.

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  4. Last Lemming on February 3, 2014 at 8:21 AM

    I think you need to split the “legal” option into two: (1) the practice of polygamy should not be a crime, and (2) people should be able to legally marry more than one person at a time. Kody Brown (and the 19th century Church) may only be interested in the first option, but if his win holds up (and it will), don’t think the next polygamist won’t pursue the second option, notwithstanding the badness of the idea.

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  5. Kullervo on February 3, 2014 at 8:25 AM

    New Iconoclast, it gets a little more complicated than that because a lot of other laws intersect with marriage law–the biggest example being property law. It’s not just a taxation issue.

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  6. Howard on February 3, 2014 at 8:41 AM

    Where do you truncate a continuum? Mormons ideally like it very clear and simple, black and white; single vs. married. But the world behaves quite differently; roommates vs. roommates who made love vs. roommates who make love vs. living together vs married? Now add a third to that continuum. Is that really a lot different than being single but dating and sleeping with more than one person at a time?

    Legally it gets very messy. Prosecute those who formalize their relationships while ignoring all the others? And why? Because in the past polygamy correlates with a higher rate of abuse? Okay, shouldn’t the abuse be prosecuted directly?

    The religious argument should be separated from the legal argument and the government should get out of bedrooms. Anti polygamy laws are bad laws if their main purpose is to prohibit abuse because the abuse should be prosecuted directly.

    I am a descendant of polygamy, I grew up being taught that polygamy and monogamy are both good forms of marriage and that marriage is good. Some of my ancestors lived part of their lives pretty close to Joseph and Joseph was a polygamist. Now because the practice of and reasons for polygamy exceed the comprehension of most of today’s chapel Mormons there has been a backlash and polygamy has been redefined as a lustful self serving mistake but I disagree, there is much more to LDS polygamy than that, it offers a crucible with which to refine our selfishness, possessiveness and jealousy. However given just how selfish we are I think it would take several generations of polygamy lived under the guidance of a benevolent theocracy to transcend it but the result would be a more Christlike people.

    And before I’m accused of being chauvinist here I think polygamy was intended to be practiced as both polygyny and polyandry which might explain why Joseph married the wives of other living men.

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  7. New Iconoclast on February 3, 2014 at 8:50 AM

    New Iconoclast, it gets a little more complicated than that because a lot of other laws intersect with marriage law–the biggest example being property law. It’s not just a taxation issue.

    I understand that. Those obstacles are difficult, but superable – we’ve spent years working them out for unmarried het couples, unmarried gay couples, families with indivisible inheritance issues and mulitple children (like family farms), and so on. I’m not advocating waving my magic wand and making it all go away.

    I hate to give more power and leverage to lawyers and accountants, but I’d rather do that than leave it in the hands of politicians.

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  8. fbisti on February 3, 2014 at 8:56 AM

    If one begins with the premise that the close bonding, equal “partnership,” and mutual respect of two people is the pinnacle of human relationships (and that this relationship can not be adequately nor fully developed with more than one other at a time–it is too difficult and person-specific), then polygamy was NEVER the ideal in terms of “eternal progression” or any other such plan or goal to become Christ-like. We have many aids and means to help us develop in righteousness. None, in my experience, is more powerful and enduring than this type of sharing, caring, and mutually supportive relationship.

    The Lord may have endorsed it (due to the wider cultural expectations) when Solomon, David, et al practiced it. Such a rationale certainly did not exist for Joseph Smith. All the several other rationales of a higher birth rate among the most righteous homes, making homes for more single women, etc. don’t seem to me to be justifiable reasons for handicapping these individuals’ ability to “become one,” to fully bond and become truly righteous partners. And, yes, that leads to the conclusion that Joseph Smith got confused and carried away by all the new and amazing things he was learning and became convinced that he, as with his predecessor prophets, should also practice polygamy.

    There are valid legal arguments for and against polygamous marriage in our current legal system. Given our enlightened (LDS) understanding of eternal progression, there are no arguments for polygamy that justify its failure with regard to adequately building this necessary bond.

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  9. Howard on February 3, 2014 at 9:04 AM

    If one begins with the premise that the close bonding, equal “partnership,” and mutual respect of two people is the pinnacle… Then one would be wrong because this assumption doesn’t leave enough room for an intimate relationship with your spouse, Heavenly Father, Christ and the Spirit each a separate entity. Does it?

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  10. Nick Literski on February 3, 2014 at 9:09 AM

    U.S. v Reynolds was a religiously bigotted decision, clearly driven by moral disapproval of Mormons. It’s a dark stain on SCOTUS jurisprudence. That said, the end of LDS plural marriage was not just about legal consequences. As the Second Manifesto approached, increasing numbers of young adult Mormons were becoming vocal about what an embarassment it was to be “different” than the rest of the country. This shows up in the published transcripts of the Smoot hearings, for example. Once polygamy became an excommunicable offense in 1904, a rising generation of LDS leaders was determined to disassociate their church with the practice, even to the point of genuine persecution against Mormon Fundamentalist groups (i.e. Short Creek Raids).

    Personally, I’m convinced that we never would have seen the abuses which have come to be associated with Fundamentalist Mormon polygamy, had the practice not been driven underground. Further, I believe it’s ridiculous to portray adult women as incapable of making their own relationship decisions, and thus in need of “protection” against themselves. When it comes to consenting adults, it should be entirely legal. The only criminal statutes regarding it should apply when a minor is involved.

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  11. Kullervo on February 3, 2014 at 9:21 AM

    Those obstacles are difficult, but superable – we’ve spent years working them out for unmarried het couples, unmarried gay couples, families with indivisible inheritance issues and mulitple children (like family farms), and so on.

    Eh, it’s not worked out as much as you might think (I am actually an estate planning lawyer). There’s a lot that can be done, but it costs money to do it. That’s what the big problem would be: right now, for the average married couple, their property rights work out by default more or less how they (and society as a whole) would choose for them to work out anyway.

    If everyone had to create marital property rights from scratch through contractual arrangements, that would have huge costs (not only legal fees for the people who choose to, but significant personal and societal fallout around the people who can’t or don’t).

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  12. Howard on February 3, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    “Pinnacle”,”eternal laws”, “the Lord’s standard”! This kind of language has caused me to ponder on my walk today about Mormons in general. Mormons seem to love absolutist religious hyperbole spoken with great certitude from the pulpit by those with the “divine authority” to put on such a show!

    While our doctrine is seldom right, oddly we are never in doubt about it! This kind of mental bias is favored by people who’s adult clear reasoning is contaminated by mixing it with parental bias.

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  13. alice on February 3, 2014 at 10:03 AM

    When we were younger my husband was in a band. Those guys were close. Close. They shared a dream and risked everything for it together. When they were in the groove their music was an intimate non-verbal communication between them as much as it was public entertainment. It was sometimes in my face that there was an alternative “marriage” of sorts in our life.

    But, unlike our conventional marriage, in the band there were 4 different personalities involved, each with their unique perspectives, needs and goals. As happens almost with predictable regularity, they broke up not long after they achieved something approaching the level of success they’d yearned for. It was painful but it was just too explosive to sustain. It was just as gut wrenching and inevitable for every other group we were close to as well. And the splits often leave chronic emotional scars and feelings of betrayal that last a lifetime.

    I don’t know what the experience of polygamy is but I think it must be something like that. I suspect that in heterosexual marriages, as opposed to these same gender testosterone-fueled bands, it was only superficially manageable in the long run because one man had priesthood authority to dominate (righteously or unrighteously) women when conflicts came up.

    I get queasy at the very thought of polygamy but my libertarian heart says that you can’t prevent people from making their own mistakes and that, ultimately, it will be hard to find a constitutional basis for a ban on polygamy. IF I were a betting person I’d say that my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will have it as an option in their lives.

    What hath Joseph Smith wrought?

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  14. Kullervo on February 3, 2014 at 10:15 AM

    ultimately, it will be hard to find a constitutional basis for a ban on polygamy.

    States don’t really need a constitutional basis to ban polygamy.

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  15. Howard on February 3, 2014 at 10:16 AM

    Well had the band worked thorough their differences they would have grown. Having experienced poly relationships a couple of different times in my life while outside the church I can tell you that if they are honest they aren’t typically as explosive as you describe. Adversity creates growth opportunity and there is little else that can trigger one’s selfishness, possessiveness and jealousy like competition for one’s mate. People who stay in poly relationships are either dependent or they tend to work through those feelings mostly leaving their jealousy behind, it paves the way for deeper levels of intimacy.

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  16. Howard on February 3, 2014 at 10:35 AM

    One on one marriages are growth limiting. Sure you can argue that you grow together as a couple and you can and hopefully you do! But the pace is glacial compared to individual growth rates. The problem is two people do not typically grow in the same direction at the same pace so they tend to grow apart. While one on one marriages reduce the expression of possessiveness and jealousy those feelings are laying potently dormant having not been challenged and when one finds their partner growing it can easily and quickly become threatening to the slower growth partner. So for the sake of the marriage personal growth is often suppressed. Poly relationships are more growth flexible because they are less constraining.

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  17. Howard on February 3, 2014 at 11:08 AM

    Poly relationships are in part less constraining because one isn’t expecting another to “complete” them. They learn to acquire bits and pieces of what they want/need from a variety of other people, no one individual is necessarily assigned to the job of completing them.

    This leads in an interesting introspective direction: becoming complete. We often hear the expression “my better half” and I have used the formula 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 to describe what it means. When a partially complete person marries another partially complete person because they each complete the other, a long term obligation is formed. You must always provide that missing part for your spouse of they won’t feel loved and complete. This is a commonly accepted even revered dysfunctional symbiosis and it keep the relationship locked in growth resistant homeostasis.

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  18. Jon on February 3, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    Something to think about this polygamy is legalized it will not be just man with many wives it will have to be legal for women with multiple husbands as well

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  19. brjones on February 3, 2014 at 12:03 PM

    Kullervo, why don’t states need a constitutional basis to ban polygamy?

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  20. brjones on February 3, 2014 at 12:12 PM

    I don’t particularly care much about polygamy either way. From a legal standpoint, the government may be able to withstand a constitutional challenge to the current state of the law on rational basis grounds. Reasonable minds can certainly differ, but I think the state could possibly pass a rational basis test if they could demonstrate that things like sexual and physical abuse and governmental corruption (as found in YFZ, for example) seem to attend communities based on a polygamous lifestyle. I’m not saying that’s the case, but preventing such things would likely qualify as a compelling state interest. Similar arguments allow the continued criminalization of other behaviors engaged in by consenting adults, and which don’t directly harm another person, such as prostitution and recreational drug use.

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  21. Jeff Spector on February 3, 2014 at 12:33 PM

    I think the SSM process will open up the can of worms that will eventually allow any human (still restricting animals and mobile phones) legalized marital arrangement. How can that be prevented?

    The Church will continue to resist polygamy even though it went from being necessary for exaltation to being among the most abhorrent practices on the face of the whole earth…. :)

    And also, Joseph’s polygamy was a far cry from how BY and the rest of the Utah folks practiced it.

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  22. brjones on February 3, 2014 at 12:51 PM

    Jeff, the SSM process will not eradicate all restrictions on human marriages. Marriage of an adult to a child (under a statutorily prescribed age) will never be allowed, nor will the marriage of parents and children or siblings. In both cases, the state has an obvious and unquestioned compelling interest in disallowing such marriages. The issue in the SSM debate is that states are claiming protection of the traditional family as a compelling state interest which justifies depriving gays the right to marry. Because the courts are increasingly recognizing the right marry as a fundamental one, states are being forced to defend their justifications for denying it to gays, and courts are increasingly finding those interests to be unconvincing. In the other situations I mentioned, though, it’s almost inconceivable that the states’ interests in outlawing those relationships will ever be deemed to be less than compelling.

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  23. alice on February 3, 2014 at 1:03 PM

    I’m not a proponent of or apologist for polygamy by a long shot. But I think the abuses you point to, brjones, arise from women in present day polygamous marriages having no legal standing. It’s possible if things were regularized (as in defined by law rather than being in the norm) those women and children could depend on the law to give them a degree of protection against abuse or the threat of abandonment.

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  24. IDIAT on February 3, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    brjones #22 – what is the obvious and unquestioned compelling state interest to prevent incestuous marriages where the female is beyond child bearing age? Why would we care if a brother and sister married who were around 50 years of age? Or a 50 year old child and a 70 year old parent? or a 25 year old woman who’s had a hysterectomy and parent/sibling? I’m not advocating for such, only pointing out that much of our sectarian reasons can be assuaged with a little creativity.

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  25. Kullervo on February 3, 2014 at 1:54 PM

    brjones, because unlike Congress, which can only act as permitted by the Constitution, states have the power to do anything that’s not forbidden by the Constitution:


    States don’t need a constitutional basis to regulate–they have inherent power as sovereigns.

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  26. IDIAT on February 3, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    As to the survey question, the church member in me says no to polygamy. The non-church member in me says to get the state out of the marriage business altogether and let consenting adults combine and associate in any way they see fit. I know we’d have to revamp our tax and property laws to address plurality, but at this point, based on the fact that society seems eager to throw out traditional definitions of marriage anyway, we might as well do away with the concept altogether. As for having adults contract with one another, it wouldn’t take too long for boilerplate language “partnership/union” contracts to be created and they would contain the same basic protections found in statutes. Maybe a village (or commune) really could raise a child.

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  27. Jeff Spector on February 3, 2014 at 3:07 PM


    “I don’t know what the experience of polygamy is but I think it must be something like that.”

    Having been in bands in that exact situation, it is nothing like a marriage. Especially in the situation where you are all working together to achieve a common goal and when it arrives, the thing implodes because someone was not being 100% honest about some aspect of the journey. And typically, you enter that journey as an intact unit.

    In polygamy, spouses were typically additive and some sort of vetting process was used. While not perfect, it allowed a new member to come in understanding the workings of the rest of the group. That does happen in bands, but those people usually are not where the problems start.

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  28. Jeff Spector on February 3, 2014 at 3:11 PM

    “Jeff, the SSM process will not eradicate all restrictions on human marriages. Marriage of an adult to a child (under a statutorily prescribed age) will never be allowed, nor will the marriage of parents and children or siblings.”

    Sorry, I should have been more precise. Probably not. In fact, they should probably raise the legal age of marriage. Like they have the drinking laws. The remainder of my comment stands.

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  29. brjones on February 3, 2014 at 5:49 PM

    Like the power to make abortion illegal or pass anti-sodomy laws? That interpretation of state powers went bye bye before the ink dried on Marbury v. Madison. States are free to make whatever laws they want, but big brother will be close behind determining in practicality whether they pass constitutional muster. The rational basis test allows the Supreme Court to review any law that putatively restricts citizens’ constitutional rights (I know you know this, as a lawyer). So if the Supremes determine that the right to polygamous marriage is a fundamental right, then the states will indeed need a constitutional basis to ban it. In this case, constitutional meaning what the supreme court interprets the spirit of the constitution to mean. Do you disagree with this?

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  30. brjones on February 3, 2014 at 5:53 PM

    I agree with you, Jeff. It seems difficult to see how the courts are going to maintain the incongruity of the absolute right to marry required to support gay marriage, while at the same time maintaining what appears to be an arbitrary restriction on polygamy. You’re probably right that it seems reasonable that at some point any marital relationship between consenting adults will be legal.

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  31. Douglas on February 4, 2014 at 3:28 AM

    #10 – Everyone, please look outside the window for airborne swine, b/c Nick and I agree in lockstep on this one!

    The Edmunds-Tucker Act, like previous Federal legislation passed as early as 1862, was the result of anti-Mormon bigotry and the ensuing moral panic regarding polygamy, as many others have already pointed out. Fairly much the same Supreme Court that upheld these laws and the dis-incorporation of the Church until they ‘knuckled under’ ruled but a few years later that “Separate but Equal” in matters of public accommodations was quite constitutional as well. Like it or not, in each era, including our own, there is a popular social orthodoxy that influences even the most impartial of legal minds. In the late 19th century, it would have been Blacks, Jews, Orientals, and Catholics (esp. the Irish) “Knowing their place” in genteel, white Protestant society, and NO WAY them Mormons were gonna have their little ol’ sexual-free-for-all polygamous households.

    Who knows…it might go from gays or polygs supplicating the almight state to sanction their marriages to an actual Libertarian notion that marriage will become a social convention rather than a legal status. Oh, this would have some VERY INTERESTING legal implications,including the collapse of the divorce “industry”, much akin to what happened in recent years with real estate and is now happening in so-called “higher” education…ergo, a “bubble burst”. I already have seen this with much more streamlined and cost-effective solutions in the divorce area. To wit, mine own recent one has cost me in legal fees about $15K thus far. Seem steep? Well, back in the mid-90s, the going rate for a divorcing male professional in California was about nine months salary, which at the time would have been about $45K (mine came in somewhat less, but not too much less). It’s a sad fact that folks are either putting off getting un-hitched b/c they just can’t afford it, or they find far more cost-effective solutions to splitting the sheets; and the courts are all gung-ho about it (else they’d be out of business too, and they won’t have that!). Imagine NO ALIMONY…I could, believe me! Would that be an issue regarding child custody and support? Well, the sad fact is that said proceedings between parents who were NEVER married are slightly in the majority in California, the obvious implication being that a child born to a married heterosexual couple has the greatest likelihood (still not great enough!) of being raised to adulthood with both parents. So the legal system has already adjusted to the matters of child welfare, custody, and support without the convention of marriage. Perhaps it’s time to simply do away with the legal status of “marriage”, leaving it to the Churches and other social institutions that recognize it for whatever reason. Naturally, the devil is in the details (what to do of existing marriages, common property, medical and insurance benefits, etc) but as I’ve said before that it was not necessary to extend to LGBT folk the legal status of marriage in order that they might enjoy these things in the same manner as the traditional heterosexual marrieds have done; workarounds being quite available, then said adjustments would work for the rest of us too. Maybe what that shrill broad with the “No on 8″ bumper sticker bellowing “equality for ALL!” as she tried to splash puddle water on myself and my daughters on Sunrise Blvd in Citrus Heights (when our Stake was participating in a “Yes on 8″ rally in the 2008 elections), maybe she had the right idea, though not necessarily what she’d intended at the time.

    So, I’d say that though in 2014 the Supreme Court upholding the Edmunds-Tucker Act was wrong, in the context of the times it seems incredulous that the justices would have done otherwise.

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  32. Left Field on February 4, 2014 at 5:35 AM

    I’m not so convinced that marriages between siblings should, or justifiably can be prohibited. The genetic effects of a single-shot brother/sister mating are probably less than many people assume. But aside from that, we’re talking about a license to marry, not a license to reproduce. The two are very different things. A brother and sister who are determined to have a child together will probably not be dissuaded by their inability to marry. Presumably, the state’s interest in prohibiting incestuous marriages is to minimize the medical and social costs associated with their offspring. But if that is the justification for prohibiting a brother/sister marriage, what would be the justification if any, of prohibiting a brother/brother marriage? Or should such a marriage be permitted, while still prohibiting marriage between siblings of opposite sex?

    People with certain genetic conditions also have children who will be a financial or social burden on society. Yet the state does not prohibit such people from either marrying or reproducing. Shouldn’t adults be left to evaluate the risks and decide for themselves if they want to reproduce? Or decide that they want to marry and not reproduce? Do we need or want the government making that decision for individuals? My suspicion is that our reluctance to allow sibling marriages has more to do with visceral aversion that with genetics or social burden.

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  33. Mormon Heretic on February 4, 2014 at 8:12 AM

    The Edmunds-Tucker Act was repealed in 1978.

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  34. Howard on February 4, 2014 at 8:26 AM

    Like it or not, in each era, including our own, there is a popular social orthodoxy that influences even the most impartial of legal minds. Well said Douglas!

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