What's the Harm in Polygamy? Multicultural Toleration and Women's Experience of Plural Marriage
Journal of Law and Religion
Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University
The last decade has seen the publication in North America of a plethora of academic books and articles about polygamy. The most important texts on the subject, however, are two court rulings evaluating the constitutionality of criminal prohibitions against the practice of polygamy. Informed by and in dialogue with this academic discourse, these courts arrived at dramatically different conclusions. In Reference re s. 293 of the Criminal Code of Canada, the Supreme Court of British Columbia determined that while Mormon fundamentalist polygamists had religious freedom rights under Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to practice this aspect of their bona fide religious faith, the government of Canada was justified in limiting this right under Section 1 of the Charter. Prohibiting polygamy was necessary, the court found, in order to prevent the real and substantial risk of harm that it posed to women and children. Conversely, in the United States, a trial-level court in Utah issued a summary judgment finding that a criminal prohibition against polygamous religious marriages violated the rights to freedom of religion under the First Amendment, and due process rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. This judgment focused on the state's duty to tolerate minority religious practices, while downplaying the potential risks of polygamy to practitioners and their children.