The PolyOldFart

July 27, 2008

Legal recognition for multiple spouses

Filed under: polyamory — Tags: — polyoldfart @ 5:36 pm

I spent too much time this weekend reading various opinions on legalizing marriage to multiple spouses, particularly in Canada. It’s been a hot topic since a government report that the current law not only is inconsistent with Canada’s multi-cultural progressive values (codified in The Charter of Rights and Freedoms) but doesn’t even do what it’s purported to do and protect women and children. It is very rarely enforced except to deny immigration to those legally married in other countries. For those already in Canada, it only marginalizes unrecognized spouses even further and leaves them with no legal protections.

The events in Texas have pressured BC authorities to address the matter of Bountiful, another FLDS community that has been accused of forcing girls into plural marriages. While no one is arguing that girls and women should be forced into marriages by church elders, it also again stirs the pot about why, exactly, are consensual relationships between adults being criminalized.

There are many well-considered opinions that if the law were really called into question it would fail. The implications of this touch immigration rights, family law and other areas where laws have assumed that a person may have only one legal spouse. (You can read a good summary of the issues in this post from The Court, a Canadian legal blog from the Osgoode Hall Law School.) Already there are families with multiple spouses collecting government benefit checks which, depending on who you ask is either the Canadian welfare system working as it should (not everything depends on marital status, as it does in the United States) or a sign of the apocalypse.

This is an interesting development. There were many claims that by allowing same-sex marriage, Canada was opening up the door to all manner of “unnatural” arrangements and the abolition of marriage altogether. But if you remove the religious basis, which in a secular society is in theory the only legally defensible position, just why are there arbitrary restrictions on one’s choice of marriage partners?

Canada is a very different social climate than the United States. I have seen a few discussions of the same-sex marriage decision that basically say it was easier because there wasn’t so much at stake. In the US, being legally married is a big deal, it controls who gets to have health insurance and if you can sponsor someone for immigration and what happens to shared assets after death. If I am not legally married, I have to go through a great deal of trouble and expense to set up legal and financial arrangements with my partner and they will never hold the same force of law. Some things can never be had without it, like government benefits or the right to sue for wrongful death. For newly-married same-sex partners, if your home state recognizes your marriage, the moment you go somewhere that doesn’t you have no legal standing. And that’s not even getting into the conflict between state and federal law.

Is religious plural marriage going to force the hand of governments to recognize other family structures? And what does this mean for polyamory? While there is a wide range of practices under the umbrella of non-monogamy, the various camps are hardly on speaking terms. Fundamentalist religious polygyny categorically rejects multiple partners for women where modern polyamory celebrates it. There is some discussion if poly people should associate, even in passing, with the religious polygamists and a patriarchal system of authority over women that progressives find offensive. While I fully respect the ability of adults to choose a relationship form that is appropriate for their personal and cultural values, I have a problem with trying to form an alliance with people who would deny me the same opportunity.

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