Is Polygamy Illegal in the United States

Over the last few years there have been a number of television shows regarding the polygamist lifestyle. This has led some to wonder whether polygamy may be legal anywhere in the U.S. It also raises questions about why bigamy is outlawed and whether this is a trend that may be changing.

Currently, every state has a law outlawing polygamy. Additionally, the federal government has several laws that also criminalize the act of being married to more than one person. Enforcement of these laws is relatively difficult given the often secretive nature of many polygamists and the fact that most will have only one marriage on paper. As a result, many of these laws attempt to target those who cohabit with more than one member of the opposite sex. But, these laws are problematic given the increase in those who may have multiple roommates of mixed genders.

Many of these laws arose in the 19th Century, often in response to what was seen as a moral threat posed by Mormonism. Because many of these laws are based on purely moral grounds, they are increasingly subject to challenge in the courts using similar arguments as those that have been used to decriminalize homosexual acts and legalize same-sex marriages.

For example, in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) which struck down the Texas anti-sodomy laws. Two men were convicted of violating the law while carrying on a homosexual relationship. Their alleged behavior took place behind closed doors and would not have been a crime otherwise. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy noted that the acts involved were fully consensual and between two adults, that they should have a right to privacy, and that the government should not intrude into the bedroom. While the immediate effect of this law was to overturn the anti-sodomy laws of a number of states, it also opened the door to greater privacy in the bedroom and limiting the government's ability to regulate intimate relations, such as those involved in polygamous relationships.

More recently, a federal judge ruled that the language used in Utah's anti-bigamy laws were too vague to be enforceable. They were once based on the notion that people of opposite genders would not cohabit without engaging in a committed romantic relationship akin to marriage. But the modern realities are very different, leaving such laws anachronistic, an invasion of the privacy of those targeted with prosecution, a violation of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and unconstitutional both as written and applied.

Some suggest recent legal trends towards recognition of same-sex marriages may also have the side-effect of legalizing bigamy. Of course, others fear the liberalization of marriage laws, particularly those related to polygamy, will authorize other criminalized behavior associated with bigamist religious practices, such as child-brides. However, there is no reason to believe that this trend will result in such radical reversals. The ruling in Lawrence v. Texas was based on the idea that private acts between consenting adults should remain their business and not the government's. Matters affecting children, on the other hand, are very different, as children are not legally able to consent. Thus, the rulings in Lawrence, recent recognition of same-sex marriage, and other changes in the laws relating to relationships between consenting adults are unlikely to spill over to authorize other acts like those with people unable or unwilling to consent.

Thus, to answer the original question posed by this article, yes, polygamy is technically illegal still, but that may be changing soon. If you are involved in a polygamous relationship or have been charged with bigamy, you should contact an attorney in your area to discuss your legal rights.

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case.

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