Polygamists are getting their 15 minutes of fame.
HBO, the U.S. cable network, has announced the start of a new dramatic series about polygamy called Big Love, and a study commissioned by the Martin government has just recommended that polygamy be legalized, to prepare for possible constitutional challenges by polygamists seeking the same rights as gay men and women.
I didn't think there was much interest in multi-partner marriages, but apparently the debate over same-sex marriage prompted the commissioning of the study, which concludes that the criminal prohibition on polygamy serves no constructive purpose and is vulnerable to constitutional challenge. Without question this is right.
In theory, polygamy could be a beautiful experiment in communal living, but in actuality it is usually a creepy manifestation of patriarchal domination. Nonetheless, without proof of coercion or exploitation #224; la Charles Manson, there is no need for the state to intervene with the threat of prison. People should be free to live with multiple partners.
But this does not mean that multiple-partner marriages should then receive the standard legal benefits and obligations that come with single-partner marriages.
The fact that some politicians think that giving the legal seal of approval to same-sex marriage may lead to similar entitlements for polygamists shows that they have misunderstood the compelling and deserving rights claim that lies at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate. The vindication of equality rights for gay couples will not lead to legally recognized marriages between Cletus and his 10 wives or Marsha and her 10 cats.
Nonetheless, opponents of same-sex marriage who are demanding that the legal reforms of the last government be revisited continue to try to undercut the incontrovertible constitutional demands of same-sex couples by warning of some nebulous but dangerous moral decline in Canadian society starting with gay marriage, then the legal vindication of Montreal sex clubs and now polygamy.
This hackneyed slippery-slope argument rings hollow and misses the point by characterizing gay marriage as simply an issue of contemporary sexual morality. Polygamists and the weekend orgy crowd may be sexual anarchists, but gay couples are actually upholding traditional family values.
With divorce rates hovering around 40 per cent, I feel somewhat ambivalent about extolling the virtues of the social institution of marriage, but there is a defining beauty to the concept. In a harsh world, it is wonderful to enter into a bond with one person who can be trusted and loved. When the union works, the sharing of pleasure can be powerful, and fighting through pain or hardship becomes bearable. The essence of marriage is the union of two people.
The one-on-one relationship is precisely the type that society, through the expression of law, should support. It is stabilizing for the couple, children and society. The strength of this stabilizing bond between two people is not contingent upon the irrelevant factor of one's partner having the same genitalia.
That a union must only be between a man and a woman is a religious belief. Even though my own sensibilities tend more toward the blasphemous, I fully respect the right of the religious to act upon their beliefs. But I do not support secular law being governed by the dictates of personal religious beliefs. Religion should be about inner peace.
I would think that monotheistic religious folk would be the strongest supporters of gay marriage, since they understand the fundamental value of the one-on-one relationship. But not everyone is seeking a relationship with the same Maker.
If our new government wavers on the path to legalizing same-sex marriage, this would show a fundamental misconception of political life. What may offend some people's religious principles may still be good for the country and politically desirable.
In a secular society, the issue of gay marriage must be resolved in the same way we have solved the ultimate paradox of living in a global village where everyone worships a different god by seeking warmth and solace in our own god and letting others do the same with their choice of life partner.
Alan Young is a professor of law at Osgoode Hall. His column appears every other week. email@example.com