In many cultures throughout the world, the practice of having more than one spouse is common. In Muslim countries in particular, bigamy is accepted and embraced as normal. One quarter of sovereign states throughout the globe permit multiple spouses; however, these are all related to legalizing one man to have multiple wives. One woman having multiple husbands is illegal in every country in the world.
In the United States, polygamy is illegal, but polyamory is not. Polygamy was made illegal in July 1962 with the passing of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. This made polygamy a misdemeanor. More than 20 years later, the Edmunds Act made polygamy a felony. While people can live with and have as many domestic and sexual partners as they like, only one spouse is recognized as legal in the eyes of the law.
Polyamory is the practice of having more than one close intimate sexual or romantic partner. Polyamory is distinguished from cheating because each polyamorous partner has full knowledge of all the other partners, and each partner gives consent to the others to permit this practice of sexual multiplicity.
While same sex marriage was debated among Americans, many people made comparisons between same sex marriage and polyamorous marriage. Opposition to same-sex marriage reasoned that if it was permissible to change the definition of marriage from a legal union between a man and a woman to a legal union between two men or between two women, this would open the door for other kinds of legal unions, including those between multiple people.
In America, some religions claim that polygamy is part of their religious practice. Mormons in particular were well known for having multiple spouses for each husband. Utah’s ban on polygamy was challenged in 2013 by a man who wanted to legally call each of his multiple partners his wives in the eyes of the law. Although the courts refused to legally recognize the marriages, the law criminalizing polygamy was overturned.
In the Supreme Court decision on this case, a judge compared polyamorous cohabitation to sodomy. From a legal perspective, although sodomy may not technically be legal, the judge wrote that it was not up to authorities to enforce such restrictions. The judge compared sodomy to the practice of multiple sexual partners: the state can’t punish men or women for this practice. This may be partly due to simple logistical reasons. It would be more than the police could possibly enforce.
There are moral and religious arguments against bigamy customs. However, from a legal perspective, most of the country’s laws about family, taxes, estates, and spousal privileges are dependent on the concept of pair-bonding. Changing laws regarding how many spouses one can have would require changing laws in many sectors. Similar to enforcement problems, this would create an overhaul of the legal system that is not likely to be possible in the foreseeable future.
Authored by Danielle Winterton, LegalMatch Legal Writer