Carson Holloway

Justice Sotomayor and the path to polygamy

Carson Holloway
By Carson Holloway

April 22, 2013 (PublicDiscourse) - Opponents of same-sex marriage resist it because it amounts to redefining marriage, but also because it will invite future redefinitions. If we embrace same-sex marriage, they argue, society will have surrendered any reasonable grounds on which to continue forbidding polygamy, for example.

In truth, proponents of same-sex marriage have never offered a very good response to this concern. This problem was highlighted at the Supreme Court last month in oral argument over California’s Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

Surprisingly, the polygamy problem that same-sex marriage presents was raised by an Obama appointee, the liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Sotomayor interrupted the presentation of anti-Prop 8 litigator Theodore Olson to pose the following question: If marriage is a fundamental right in the way proponents of same-sex marriage contend, “what state restrictions could ever exist,” for example, “with respect to the number of people . . . that could get married?”

In response, Olson tried to set up a clear distinction between same-sex marriage and polygamy, suggesting that the kinds of governmental interests that justify a prohibition of polygamy are irrelevant in the case of same-sex marriage.

The Court has said, he contended, that polygamy raises “questions about exploitation, abuse, patriarchy, issues with respect to taxes, inheritance, child custody” and therefore “is an entirely different thing” than same-sex marriage. Moreover, Olson argued, when a “state prohibits polygamy, it’s prohibiting conduct,” but if “it prohibits gay and lesbian citizens from getting married, it is prohibiting their exercise of a right based upon their status.”

Justice Sotomayor’s concerns about the possibility of a path from same-sex marriage to polygamy may arise from the fact that there is already a case in federal court challenging Utah’s anti-bigamy law as unconstitutional.  In any event, she should be just as concerned about this question after oral argument as she was before it, because none of Olson’s distinctions can reasonably justify a prohibition on polygamy if the Court finds a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. To see why, it’s first useful to note a crucial distinction that Olson overlooked, as well as the most famous Supreme Court case regarding polygamy, which he failed to mention.

Olson’s words to the Court suggest that the state somehow “forbids” same-sex marriage today just as it “forbids” polygamy. This is not true, as Adam MacLeod noted on Public Discourse earlier this week. Under current law and Supreme Court precedent, no state has constitutional authority to punish anyone for entering into a same-sex relationship. No state in fact “prohibits” same-sex marriage. If any persons wish to enter into such a relationship and call it a marriage, they are perfectly free to do so.

The real issue, the real complaint in the case that Olson represents, is that the state simply refuses to bestow on same-sex unions the same recognition that it gives to heterosexual marriages. In stark contrast, the law in many American jurisdictions not only refuses to recognize polygamous marriages; it actively punishes them. Enter into a same-sex marriage and the government will simply ignore you. Enter into a polygamous marriage and the law permits the government to prosecute you for a crime.

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Unlike the distinctions Olson raised, this one is real, and it positively undermines his assurance that we can have same-sex marriage while still banning polygamy. Common sense makes it hard to see how this could be done. In Olson’s view, the state may not officially prefer heterosexual marriage by a policy so mild that it does nothing other than to leave same-sex couples alone while declining to formally recognize their unions. By what reasoning, then, could it have a right to prefer some definition of marriage by actually punishing those who choose to disregard it?

Moreover, in his summary of what the Supreme Court has “said” about polygamy, Olson omitted to mention the single most famous case dealing with this question, Reynolds v. United States (1879). In that case the Court upheld the federal law forbidding polygamy in the territories of the United States, and declined to find that the free exercise clause immunizes those who practice it for religious reasons.

Most of the Court’s argument is dedicated to the original meaning of the Constitution’s religion clauses, but also noteworthy is its passing comment on the basis of the law in question, a basis that the Court at that time apparently found unquestionably legitimate: “Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe . . . and from the earliest history of England polygamy has been treated as an offense against society.”

Reynolds has never been overturned and indeed has been cited as an authority by the modern Supreme Court. In it the Court tells us straightforwardly the basis of laws prohibiting polygamy: moral disapproval of the practice. This raises a serious problem for the defenders of same-sex marriage.

A number of the Court’s precedents defending a “right of privacy” have already strongly undermined the idea that the majority’s moral convictions are a sufficient basis for law. If the Court finds a right to same-sex marriage, it will practically dismantle the whole concept of morals legislation. But if moral preference for heterosexual marriage cannot be a reasonable basis on which to afford it a formal recognition denied to other unions, then how can moral disapproval be a reasonable ground on which to forbid and punish polygamy?

Let us turn now from the distinctions Olson overlooked to the ones he emphasized. In the first place, Olson contended that polygamy raises serious concerns about “exploitation,” “abuse,” and “patriarchy” that aren’t relevant to same-sex marriage. Presumably he was referring to the “abuse” and “exploitation” of the children and perhaps wives of plural marriages. Yet, under the constitutional theory of marriage Olson has tried to sell, none of these considerations would be sufficient to forbid polygamy. Olson insists that marriage is a fundamental right. Standard Supreme Court doctrine holds that fundamental rights can only be infringed to defend a “compelling state interest” and that the regulations made to protect that interest must be drawn as narrowly as possible.

Everyone would concede that prevention of abuse and exploitation of children and wives is a compelling state interest. On the other hand, nobody would contend that such abuse and exploitation is the very essence of polygamy. After all, abuse and exploitation can be found in monogamous marriages, too. The most one could say is that these problems are dangers to which polygamous unions are more or less prone. In any case, under the “fundamental rights” doctrine on which Olson relies, the least restrictive means to remedy such dangers would be to recur to already existing laws punishing such abuse and exploitation, rather than going so far as to ban polygamy altogether.

Olson may also have been hinting that the state could reasonably fear that abuse and exploitation of children is more likely to arise in families where the children are not related by blood to all of their parents. This is a reasonable concern, but it could be raised just as easily in relation to same-sex marriages, where at best, only one parent can be biologically related to each child.

Similar problems arise if we consider Olson’s invocation of “patriarchy” as a justification for forbidding polygamy. We might ask: What’s wrong with patriarchy?

The most straightforward answer to this question that Olson could muster is that patriarchy is morally offensive in a liberal, egalitarian society. But, as we have seen, the case for a right to same-sex marriage depends on the Court’s willingness to expel moral sentiments as a basis for law. Or is the Court to hold that the things that offend traditional moral sensibilities are impermissible as bases for law while the things that offend progressive moral sensibilities are fine? This would be to reduce constitutional jurisprudence to naked partisanship and ideology.

Be that as it may, there is no necessary connection between patriarchy and polygamy, at least under the constitutional and legal regime now prevailing. Under the modern interpretation of the equal protection clause, any “right” to enter plural marriages would be held equally by men and women. It would not be a patriarchal right of some men to have multiple wives, but a right of both men and women to have multiple spouses of their own choosing.

Moreover, given the ease of access to divorce, there would be no serious reason to fear that women who entered plural marriages would be unable to escape from them if they found them unsatisfactory. And again, if the creation of a “right” to polygamy opened a social space in which some patriarchal subordination of women could develop, this problem could be corrected by legal remedies falling far short of banning polygamy entirely.

Olson also suggested that a ban on polygamy is made reasonable by certain technical and legal challenges that it raises, challenges involving “taxes,” “inheritance,” and “child custody.” Again, the distinction here between same-sex marriage and polygamy is underwhelming. Because same-sex marriages are prone, like polygamous marriages, to have children who are not biologically related to all of their parents, they are also prone to complications involving inheritance and child custody.

Perhaps by referring to “taxes” Olson meant to suggest that polygamous unions have a potential to produce enormous families and thus to drain federal revenues by entitling single families to hitherto unheard of numbers of tax deductions and credits. This fear, however, assumes that the standard polygamous union will feature one husband with many wives. This may not turn out to be the case. At any rate, as noted before, if marriage is a fundamental right in the way Olson’s words suggest, such problems would have to be remedied by the least-restrictive means, and mere reform of the tax provisions is far less restrictive than an outright ban on such marriages. (For example, dividing spousal benefits by the number of spouses.)

Finally, Olson argues that laws forbidding polygamy target behavior, while laws refusing to recognize same-sex marriage prohibit the exercise of a right based on people’s status. This distinction is entirely spurious. If laws against polygamy can be understood as targeting behavior, the same can just as easily be said about laws defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

Such laws refuse to bestow official recognition on a certain behavior—entering into a same-sex relationship—in which the state believes it has no vital interest. Conversely, if laws defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman can be viewed as singling out a specific class of people—gays—then anti-polygamy laws can equally be presented in the same sinister light: They refuse the right to marry to people of a certain status—polys—those who desire to marry multiple people.

As these reflections suggest, there is very good reason indeed to believe that the declaration of a “right” to same-sex marriage will set us on the path to polygamy. To allay these concerns, the proponents of same-sex marriage sometimes respond that they are only seeking what married heterosexuals already have: access to marriage understood as a union of two people. But this reassurance utterly misses the point: All the arguments by which they seek that end can easily be turned to the purposes of those who might next seek polygamy.

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press). This article reprinted with permission from The Public Discourse.

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Today’s chuckle: Rubio, Fiorina and Carson pardon a Thanksgiving turkey

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By Steve Jalsevac

A little bit of humour now and then is a good thing.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our American readers.

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Building of the European Court of Human Rights.
Lianne Laurence


BREAKING: Europe’s top human rights court slaps down German ban on pro-life leafletting

Lianne Laurence
By Lianne Laurence

STRASBOURG, France, November 26, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – The European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday that a German regional court violated a pro-life activist’s freedom of expression when it barred him from leafleting in front of an abortion center.

It further ruled the German court’s order that Klaus Gunter Annen not list the names of two abortion doctors on his website likewise violated the 64-year-old pro-life advocate’s right to freedom of expression.

The court’s November 26 decision is “a real moral victory,” says Gregor Puppinck, director of the Strasbourg-based European Center for Law and Justice, which intervened in Annen’s case. “It really upholds the freedom of speech for pro-life activists in Europe.”

Annen, a father of two from Weinam, a mid-sized city in the Rhine-Neckar triangle, has appealed to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights at least two times before, Puppinck told LifeSiteNews.

“This is the first time he made it,” he said, noting that this time around, Annen had support from the ECLJ and Alliance Defense Fund and the German Pro-life Federation (BVL). “I think he got more support, better arguments and so I think this helped.”

The court also ordered the German government to pay Annen costs of 13,696.87 EUR, or 14,530 USD.

Annen started distributing pamphlets outside a German abortion center ten years ago, ECLJ stated in a press release.

His leaflets contained the names and addresses of the two abortionists at the center, declared they were doing “unlawful abortions,” and stated in smaller print that, “the abortions were allowed by the German legislators and were not subject to criminal liability.”

Annen’s leaflets also stated that, “The murder of human beings in Auschwitz was unlawful, but the morally degraded NS State allowed the murder of innocent people and did not make it subject to criminal liability.” They referred to Annen’s website,, which listed a number of abortionists, including the two at the site he was leafleting.

In 2007, a German regional court barred Annen from pamphleteering in the vicinity of the abortion center, and ordered him to drop the name of the two abortion doctors from his website.

But the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday that the German courts had "failed to strike a fair balance between [Annen’s] right to freedom of expression and the doctor’s personality rights.”

The Court stated that, “there can be no doubt as to the acute sensitivity of the moral and ethical issues raised by the question of abortion or as to the importance of the public interest at stake.”

That means, stated ECLJ, that “freedom of expression in regard to abortion shall enjoy a full protection.”

ECLJ stated that the court noted Annen’s leaflets “made clear that the abortions performed in the clinic were not subject to criminal liability. Therefore, the statement that ‘unlawful abortions’ were being performed in the clinic was correct from a legal point of view.”

As for the Holocaust reference, the court stated that, “the applicant did not – at least not explicitly – equate abortion with the Holocaust.”  Rather, the reference was “a way of creating awareness of the more general fact that law might diverge from morality.”

The November 26 decision “is a quite good level of protection of freedom of speech for pro-life people,” observed Puppinck.

First, the European Court of Human Rights has permitted leafleting “in the direct proximate vicinity of the clinic, so there is no issue of zoning,” he told LifeSiteNews. “And second, the leaflets were mentioning the names of the doctors, and moreover, were mentioning the issue of the Holocaust, which made them quite strong leaflets.”

“And the court protected that.”

Annen has persevered in his pro-life awareness campaign through the years despite the restraints on his freedom.

“He did continue, and he did adapt,” Puppinck told LifeSiteNews. “He kept his freedom of speech as much as he could, but he continued to be sanctioned by the German authorities, and each time he went to the court of human rights. And this time, he won.”

ECLJ’s statement notes that “any party” has three months to appeal the November 26 decision.

However, as it stands, the European Court of Human Rights’s ruling affects “all the national courts,” noted Puppinck, and these will now “have to protect freedom of speech, recognize the freedom of speech for pro-lifers.”

“In the past, the courts have not always been very supportive of the freedom of speech of pro-life,” he said, so the ruling is “significant.”

As for Annen’s pro-life ministry, Pubbinck added: “He can continue to go and do, and I’m sure that he does, because he always did.”  

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A vibrant church in Africa. Pierre-Yves Babelon /
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‘Soft racism’: German Bishops’ website attributes African Catholics’ strong faith to simplemindedness

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By Pete Baklinski

GERMANY, November 26, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) --  The only reason the Catholic Church is growing in Africa is because the people have a “rather low level” of education and accept “simple answers to difficult questions” involving marriage and sexuality, posited an article on the official website of the German Bishops' Conference posted yesterday. The article targeted particularly Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, the Vatican's prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and ardent defender of Catholic tradition.

First Things blogger Leroy Huizenga, who translated a portion of the article, criticized the article's view as “soft racism.”

In his article, titled “The Romantic, Poor Church,” editor Björn Odendahl writes: 

So also in Africa. Of course the Church is growing there. It grows because the people are socially dependent and often have nothing else but their faith. It grows because the educational situation there is on average at a rather low level and the people accept simple answers to difficult questions (of faith) [sic]. Answers like those that Cardinal Sarah of Guinea provides. And even the growing number of priests is a result not only of missionary power but also a result of the fact that the priesthood is one of the few possibilities for social security on the dark continent.

Huizenga said that such an article has no place on a bishops’ conference website. 

“We all know that the German Bishops' Conference is one of the most progressive in the world. But it nevertheless beggars belief that such a statement would appear on the Conference's official website, with its lazy slander of African Christians and priests as poor and uneducated (Odendahl might as well have added ‘easy to command’) and its gratuitous swipe at Cardinal Sarah,” he wrote. 

“Natürlich progressives could never be guilty of such a sin and crime, but these words sure do suggest soft racism, the racism of elite white Western paternalism,” he added. 

African prelates have gained a solid reputation for being strong defenders of Catholic sexual morality because of their unwavering orthodox input into the recently concluded Synod on the Family in Rome. 

At one point during the Synod, Cardinal Robert Sarah urged Catholic leaders to recognize as the greatest modern enemies of the family what he called the twin “demonic” “apocalyptic beasts” of “the idolatry of Western freedom” and “Islamic fundamentalism.”

STORY: Cardinal Danneels warns African bishops to avoid ‘triumphalism’

“What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today,” he said during his speech at the Synod last month. 

But African prelates’ adherence to orthodoxy has earned them enemies, especially from the camp of Western prelates bent on forming the Catholic Church in their own image and likeness, not according to Scripture, tradition, and the teaching magisterium of the Church. 

During last year’s Synod, German Cardinal Walter Kasper went as far as stating that the voice of African Catholics in the area of Church teaching on homosexuality should simply be dismissed.

African cardinals “should not tell us too much what we have to do,” he said in an October 2014 interview with ZENIT, adding that African countries are "very different, especially about gays.” 

Earlier this month Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, instead of praising Africa for its vibrant and flourishing Catholicism, said that African prelates will one day have to look to Europe to get what he called “useful tips” on how to deal with “secularization” and “individualism.” 

The statement was criticized by one pro-family advocate as “patronizing of the worst kind” in light of the facts that numerous European churches are practically empty, vocations to the priesthood and religious life are stagnant, and the Catholic faith in Europe, especially in Belgium, is overall in decline.

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