Same Sex Marriage and Polygamy

Last Sunday Bishop Frederick Henry of (my own) diocese of Calgary started a rather large firestorm with his pastoral letter On Same-Sex Marriage. Both of Canada's largest newspapers, the Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star, condemned the letter, and Bishop Henry for his "bigotry", "fearmongering", and assorted other crimes against humanity, but what they did not not do, was confront the actual arguments in his letter. This is known, where I come from, as ad hominem, and is not acceptable in legitimate debates.

Fortunately, two other columnists, both from the National Post (Canada's third largest paper, and the only other one besides the Globe that is national in distribution) did confront some of those arguments, as well as others offered by opponents of same sex marriage. In this post I would like to address the position put forward by those one of those gentlemen, namely Andrew Coyne ("Panic over polygamy", National Post, January 22, 2005). A response to George Jonas ("Raiders of Multicult v. Amazons of the Status Quo", National Post, January 24, 2005) will have to wait, as I am restricted greatly by time constraints.

Coyne's column is curious, as he sees absolutely no link at all between the debate over same sex marriage, and that of polygamy. He states:

"The courts could accept their (polygamists) "demands," if they were of a mind to, without ever having ruled on whether two men or two women should be allowed to marry-just as the courts remain at liberty to reject them, regardless of the "precedent" established by legalizing gay marriage.
That's because the two are entirely separable issues..."

While Coyne is technically correct that the two issues are separate, and "entirely separable", it is also quite easy to link them, just as any other "human rights" case can be linked to any other that makes similar types of claims. When black men were (at least technically) given the vote in the United States, this served as a precedent, and argument, to allow the same right to women. Both are persons, and therefore entitled to the same human of rights. Likewise, if marriage is a "human right", then the granting it to one minority group (in this case gays) begs the question as to why it cannot be granted to another minority group (polygamists). The fact that the former get their rights because they are politically powerful, and the ruling Liberal Party of Canada wishes to give them this right hardly serves as justificiation for then denying it to the latter simply because (as our Prime Minister put it himself recently), it is "against the law" is, at best, hypocritical. Gay marriage was "against the law" only two years ago everywhere in Canada, until a couple of judges decided to make it legal based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Ontario and British Columbia (with other judges later adding several more provinces to this list). That was less than two years ago, and now the Liberals wish to make it the law of the land everywhere in Canada because it is a human rights issue, and the Charter makes it "necessary".

To put it simply, judges interpret the law based upon past decisions. So, if it is established that marriage between two men or two women is a human right, then what is to stop them from deciding that marriage between a man and several women (or vice versa) is also a right? And if that should happen, then it is no longer not only not "against the law", but it then becomes the new law based on the Charter of Rights. Extrapolating from the argument of the Prime Minister, the Charter cannot be violated, so he would be as obligated to legalize polygamy as he is now with same sex marriage.

Coyne attempts to address this concern in his next paragraph:

"True, both are instances of "discrimination"-in one case against homosexuals, in the other, against polygamists. Had the courts outlawed discrimination of any kind in the marriage laws, we would not need to worry whether polygamy would be next: It would already be here. But that is not what the courts have ruled, and nother obliges them to do so in the future."

This is a bit of verbal slight of hand on Coyne's part. Of course the courts are not "obliged" to do anything. In fact, they are free to be as consistent, or not, in their interpretation of the Charter and Constitution as they wish. But the logic of their arguments remain, and if one follows their logic consistently, then one does not have to consider the question for very long before concluding that a human right belongs to all person equally unless clear social harm can be shown to occur by granting that right to an unpopular minority. Since Coyne fails to present an argument for such social harm based on legalizing polygamy, one is left to wonder what it might be. He has already rejected any argument for social harm caused by the legalization of gay marriages. In his view there is, in fact, no possibility of harm against any heterosexual married couple caused by the legal marriage of a homosexual couple. Again he merely asserts this position without supporting it, so it is difficult to tell what possible harm could come (in his view) to that same heterosexual married couple if a man and several women elect to marry one another as well.

Coyne does say this much:

"It was the courts' judgement that, the state having established a particular legal status for monogamy in the marriage laws, it was unreasonable to reserve this only to heterosexuals. Whether this seems sensible to you as it does to me will depend in part on whether you agree that the essence of marriage, at least as far as the law is concerned, is monogamy-and not, as other argue, procreation... You are not required to produce offspring. You are required to be monogamous. Adultery is grounds for divorce. Infertility is not."

It is strange that Coyne does not mention that in Canada one can choose to get divorced for any reason one chooses, including because one feels like it. And contrary to what he has stated above, one can list infertility as the reason for divorce as well. Regardless, my question here is why Coyne thinks that monogamy is the central purpose of marriage. And more importantly, I am left to wonder why his preference (and the courts', assuming they share it), should matter all that much to us. Opinions change. Society changes. And so, as we have seen, do judges and their fancies. Besides, in many cultures and societies, polygamy is the norm, or at least tolerated. Such has never been the case with gay marriage. So of the two, the latter is the more radical departure from social norms.

Coyne offers a very thin reed upon which he can rest his case. Monogamy might be nice, but it is certainly not socially necessary. In fact, given that adultery, bigomy, and polygamy have been around as long as human history, one would be hard pressed to demonstrate how it could possibly be the legal and social reason for encouraging marriage. Societies have survived all of these, and will continue to do so. On the other hand, society does have a real, and demonstratable interest in procreation. Very simply, if men and women of one generation choose not to produce children, then theirs will be the last generation ever. And if they do not produce enough children, then their society will undergo very radical changes.

In the end, Coyne trivializes marriage by basing its need on a social whim (monogamy) which is not even socially necessary (however morally and emotionally beneficial it might be to individual members of that society). People, societies, and cultures can adapt to various forms of non-monogomous relationships (in fact, wasn't that what the Sexual Revolution of the 60's and 70's was all about?). But it will not survive without children being produced by heterosexual couplings. On this basis alone the argument would appear to be settled.

I commend Coyne for putting forward his rationale for supporting gay marriages. But the fact remains that he fails to acknowledge that his preference is rooted in nothing more than a prejudice for monogomy between couples, a prejudice that society at large need not (and indeed, often does not) require, even as he rejects the more objectively defensible argument from procreation, which no society can survive without.

As I said, it is a very curious argument.



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