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What Is Polygamy?

Polygamy – the act of more than two people entering into a marriage – has long been practiced throughout human history, and today is almost universally frowned upon in the Western world. Polygamy includes all forms of marriages involving more than two people: men with multiple wives, women with multiple husbands, and group marriages, where everyone in the group is married to everyone else.

In 1878, the United States Supreme Court found laws prohibiting polygamy to be constitutional, and this decision still stands.

No mainstream religious organization, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, endorses polygamy. However, some fundamentalist splinter groups who live in small, isolated communities continue to practice it. Many of them simply go through the religious rites of marriage without seeking legal recognition for their unions, to avoid prosecution for bigamy. In most of these situations, the government intervenes to investigate reports of sexual abuse of minors, rather than to enforce anti-polygamy laws.

All 50 U.S. states, and most Western countries, have made polygamy illegal. The act of marrying one person while legally married to another (bigamy) is a criminal offense in every state, and is subject to fairly harsh punishments.

What Is the Punishment For Polygamy?

In California, the punishment is a fine of up to $10,000 and/or up to 1 year in prison. In Utah, the punishment is up to 5 years in prison. In New York, it can be punished by 4 years in prison. In Illinois, the punishment is up to one year. Most other states appear to have sentences in the 1 to 5 year range, on top of hefty fines.

Can A Person Have Polygamous Relationships Without Being Married?

Many American jurisdictions also prohibit living a “polygamous lifestyle” that is, living with multiple sexual partners without being legally married. These laws are rarely enforced, however, as long as everyone involved is a consenting adult.

Given the Current Political Debates About Marriage Today, Are There Any Legal Grounds For Opposing Polygamy?

Although there are many debates today about the role and meaning of marriage, there are fundamental differences in the homosexual marriage debate and the arguments of groups advocating for polygamy. First, the focus of current debates is on who may enter a marriage, not how many. Second, advocates of homosexual marriage make arguments about privacy and personal liberty; most polygamy groups base their rights on freedom of religion. Finally, polygamy is often fertile breeding grounds for domestic violence or child abuse.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 03-22-2018 01:44 AM PDT

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