By Tim Peacock
Despite claims of wanting to protect religious liberty, many on the right have taken an odd stance in a decision late last week that struck down a portion of the Utah anti-polygamy law. In a decision handed down Friday by U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups, a portion of Utah law forbidding cohabitation was struck down on grounds that it violated the defendants' First Amendment right of freedom of religion. The lawsuit - brought forth two years ago by the now-famous "Sister Wives" - challenged the way Utah's law was written that forbade not only polygamous marriage, but also cohabitation among unmarried polygamous couples.
Anne Wilde, co-founder of the polygamy advocacy group Principle Voices, spoke with the AP after the ruling and said, "Now that we're no longer felons, that's a huge relief. They no longer have to be afraid that someone will knock at their door and take away their kids. This decision will hopefully take away the stigma of living a principle that's a strongly held religious belief."
The now-invalidated cohabitation law in Utah was originally written much stronger than laws in other states due in large part to the Mormon Church's previous official stances on polygamous marriage. The stricter law went so far as to outlaw even those who lived together with multiple partners (married or otherwise). The post-decision law still maintains that it is illegal to hold multiple marriage licenses.
Many on the Christian right reacted in horror as they watched the decision come down. Writing on his Twitter account, former GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum argued, "Some times I hate it when what I predict comes true. http://t.co/JmIPiiJiyn…" Another far right conservative - Matt Barber - completely misunderstood the ruling and believed that polygamous marriage had been legalized. He wrote, "The fruits of fake 'gay marriage?' Incest, bestiality up next ==> Fed. judge rules polygamy ban unconstitutional."
Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention had this to say about the ruling:
“This is what happens when marriage becomes about the emotional and sexual wants of adults, divorced from the needs of children for a mother and a father committed to each other for life,” said Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Polygamy was outlawed in this country because it was demonstrated, again and again, to hurt women and children. Sadly, when marriage is elastic enough to mean anything, in due time it comes to mean nothing.”
One conservative author crystallized the right wing freak-out over the decision though better than most. Writing for American Conservative, Rod Dreher said:
"Waddoups calls a 19th-century Supreme Court ruling banning polygamy 'racist' and 'orientalist,' because it asserted that Christianity’s teaching on marriage is superior to the polygamous arrangements that some Africans and “Asiatics” (presumably this means Arab Muslims) live by. This is an important point, it seems to me. If Christianity and the Christian moral and societal framework is no longer viewed as normative in laws governing sexual practice, then the slippery slope to legalizing polygamy is here. We already know from the Lawrence ruling that the state may not regulate private consensual sexual conduct; if the principle that privileging Christian marital norms is impermissible is accepted, by what standard do we prevent polygamy? I suppose you could say it harms society in some way, but this judge rejected that argument. Scalia’s Lawrence dissent was correct. We’re just seeing the logic of the majority opinion play out in the courts. That, and the collapse of Christianity as the basis for Western society. It’s not happening overnight. But it’s happening."
The thought of Christianity as the guiding force behind law (and the potential loss of that legal force) seems to be the boogeyman in the closet here. The primary complaint from those on the right appears to be in how another religion defines marriage as being between multiple people - something Christians (in the past) have spoken fervently about in arguing for their sacredly-held religious beliefs on the subject. The irony in their anger over this decision arises not in the fact that the judge did not overturn the actual polygamy ban as it relates to marriage (it only applied to cohabitation) but in how they believe another religion's legal views are invalid and unworthy because they do not coincide with their Christian world view. Their arguments for First Amendment religious freedom fall apart when faced with another religion's beliefs winning a day in court.
In short, the mere notion that a religious precedent was set on Friday not steeped in Christian ideology scares the hell out of them.
Then again, those in the LGBT community have been saying this all along. It's not about Christian beliefs being mocked or degraded. It's not about Christians' First Amendment rights being violated. It's about a majority-holding religion's followers believing they should have their beliefs legislated over other religions and other people's beliefs. And that's neither very Christian nor very Constitutional.