Who Practices Polygamy in the United States?

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Polygamy, the practice of having more than one spouse at the same time, has a long and complex history in the United States. Though illegal nationwide, polygamy is still practiced by small groups, primarily fundamentalist Mormons as well as some Muslims and Neopagans.

The Legality of Polygamy in the U.S.

Polygamy is currently illegal in all 50 U.S. states and Washington D.C. This has been the case since the late 19th century, when federal laws banned the practice of plural marriage.

The initial ban on polygamy came in 1862 under the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which prohibited plural marriage in U.S. territories. The Edmunds Act of 1882 further criminalized not just the practice of polygamy but also “unlawful cohabitation” with multiple partners. Finally, the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 disincorporated the LDS Church and allowed the seizure of church assets until the practice of polygamy was abolished.

Utah, formerly a hotbed of Mormon polygamy, had to ban the practice as a condition of statehood in 1896. Polygamy has remained illegal at the federal level ever since. The Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of plural marriage in the 1879 Reynolds v. United States case.

So today, having multiple formal legal spouses simultaneously is outlawed nationwide. Bigamy, entering a second legal marriage without dissolving the first, is a felony in most states. However, simply cohabiting and having intimate relationships with multiple consenting adults is not necessarily illegal.

Fundamentalist Mormons

The largest polygamist grouping in America today is fundamentalist Mormons, particularly in sects that have split from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

The LDS Church officially abandoned the doctrine of polygamy in 1890 to gain statehood for Utah. However, some breakaway groups and individuals refused to accept this abandonment of what they saw as a core tenet of the faith.

Most fundamentalist Mormons live in small, close-knit communities in the Western U.S., as well as in parts of Mexico and Canada. Experts estimate that there are about 30,000-50,000 people living in Mormon polygamist communities. Well-known groups include:

  • The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) – largest group with about 10,000 members, mostly in Utah and Arizona
  • Apostolic United Brethren (AUB) – about 7,500 members, mainly in Utah and Montana
  • The Davis County Cooperative Society (DCCS, also known as the Kingston Group) – about 2,000 members
  • The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days (TLC) – around 300 members, based in Utah
  • The Church of the First Born – several hundred members, mostly in Utah

Mormon fundamentalist polygamy takes various forms. Most commonly, it involves one legally recognized civil marriage between a man and one wife, with subsequent religious marriage ceremonies performed to “seal” the man to additional wives. Women are taught that obedient polygamy is necessary for their salvation.

The polygamous communities are extremely insular, with members often intermarrying. Most practice arranged marriage, with girls as young as 13 or 14 assigned to older male spouses. Abuses like child brides, incest, and fraud are ongoing issues that authorities struggle to prosecute, due to members’ distrust of outsiders.

Muslims and Neopagans

Though relatively small in number, some Muslims and Neopagan groups in America also quietly practice or accept polygamy.

For Muslims, the motivation is religious. The Quran permits Muslim men to take up to four wives, provided that they can support and treat them equally. Estimates for the number of U.S. Muslims living polygamously vary widely. One figure holds there are 50,000 to 100,000 people in America involved in polygamous Muslim families.

Small subgroups like American Sufi Muslims are more open about plural marriage. However, most polygamous U.S. Muslims keep multiple wives and families secret to avoid legal trouble or social stigma. These polygamous marriages are only religious unions, not legal ones. Partners might cohabit or live in separate households.

Among Neopagans, ideas about polyamory, sexual freedom, and gender equality motivate plural relationships. Polygamy is not universally accepted but is embraced primarily by members of Dianic Wicca and paganism. Participants tend to have individual spiritual marriage ceremonies for additional partners beyond the one legal spouse.

Estimating numbers is difficult due to the decentralized nature of Neopaganism. Additionally, not all poly Neopagans choose literal marriage to additional partners. Some simply have intimate committed partnerships beyond their legal spouse, partners they may consider spiritually wedded.

Informal Polygamy and Cohabitation

While multiple legal marriages are prohibited, several adults cohabiting and considering themselves spiritually married is not necessarily illegal. The arrangements fall into a gray area if the relationships involve intimacy and romantic connection beyond traditional friendship.

This kind of informal polygamy exists in both organized religious communities like fundamentalist Mormons and in the broader American public among those exploring consensual non-monogamy. Adults may ceremonially “marry” additional partners and build families together while legally maintaining single marital status.

How many in the U.S. live this way is unknown, as most plural families keep private to avoid discrimination. Some poly advocates estimate there are several hundred thousand consensual multi-partner families across the country.

Furthermore, through the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, intimate relationships between consenting adults are protected. So cohabiting polygamous groups can claim their relationships are legal provided they are not attempting multiple formal legal marriages.

Why Polygamy Persists Despite the Ban

America’s long history with polygamy helps explain its continued, albeit rare, practice today. Groups like fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims view the practice as divinely mandated and can’t imagine abandoning beliefs they hold sacred. They desire to exercise religious freedom and marry according to their faith.

Mormonism’s polygamist origins especially contribute to its endurance. Mainstream Mormons enjoyed polygamy for over 50 years before it was banned. So fundamentalists see themselves adhering to original doctrines, reflecting the “true” Mormon faith. The LDS Church disavows them but struggles to stamp out these deeply rooted teachings.

Some Americans simply desire the freedom to structure their families and relationships as they choose. Just as same-sex and interracial couples fought for marriage rights, a small minority advocates for legal plural marriage between consenting adults. They argue that polygamy itself does not result in abuse of women or children, only certain corrupt practices that can also exist in monogamy.

Overall, the consensus holds that while some quietly practice polygamy, the vast majority of Americans find it unacceptable. For now, it remains confined to isolated religious enclaves and a few polyamorous free spirits. Barring major cultural shifts, plural marriage will likely stay outside the U.S. mainstream. America is built on monogamy, and most are happy keeping it that way.

The Future of Polygamy

What does the future hold for polygamy in the U.S.? Some possibilities:

  • Polygamy may become more accepted, following growing openness to alternative lifestyles and family structures like same-sex marriage. However, LGBTQ rights advocates are wary of comparisons to polygamy.
  • Fundamentalist Mormon groups will likely persist, though anti-polygamy activism and youth wanting greater opportunities outside insular communities may gradually decrease plural marriage. Improved law enforcement and social services could help counter problems like child brides.
  • If polygamy were decriminalized, Muslim immigrants and converts would possibly be more open about practicing it. Advocacy groups exist, but there is limited momentum currently.
  • Formal legal recognition seems unlikely due to concerns about protecting vulnerable groups from exploitation. But some states may decriminalize informal plural cohabitation between consenting adults.
  • Technology enabling people to find compatible partners may expand multipartner households. But polygamy will probably remain rare, as most still equate marriage with monogamy.

In the Internet age, Americans have expanding ideas about relationships. But for now, polygamy stays largely confined to a handful of traditional religious adherents and a small polyamorous fringe. The definition of marriage will likely evolve, but sweeping acceptance of polygamy remains a distant prospect in the U.S

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