Personal Freedom

Defending Traditional Marriage

The following article is a submission from Representative Brian Greene.

Given the history of the early LDS Church with respect to discriminatory laws and practices, and in particular with the practice of polygamy, the modern-day aggressive defense of an absolute legal definition of marriage is confusing to me. While I unquestionably defend the right of any individual or religion to endorse a particular concept of marriage, I struggle to understand why the LDS Church is so adamant on the use of government coercion to advance a particular definition (even one with which I personally agree). A quick review of early Mormon history regarding the institution of marriage is instructive on this question.

In 1874, the federal government was pursuing prosecution of LDS members practicing polygamy in the Utah Territory in violation of the 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. Confident that the law would be declared to be an unconstitutional violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the leaders of the Church agreed to furnish a defendant for a test case. George Reynolds, a member of the LDS Church and secretary to Brigham Young, agreed and was indicted for bigamy after marrying a second wife. Reynolds was found guilty by a jury, and his conviction was upheld by the Territorial Supreme Court.

In 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court (Reynolds v. United States) heard Reynolds’ appeal, and, once again, the conviction was upheld.

Regardless of the outcome, it is worth noting the arguments advanced by both Reynolds and Church leaders. At trial, and on appeal, Reynolds argued that “it was the duty of male members of said church, circumstances permitting, to practice polygamy; . . . and that the failing or refusing to practice polygamy by such male members of said church, when circumstances would admit, would be punished, and that the penalty for such failure and refusal would be damnation in the life to come.” And, therefore, the enactment of anti-bigamy laws was beyond the authority of the government.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, George Q. Cannon, an apostle in the Church and Territorial Delegate to Congress, wrote the following:

Our crime has been: We married women instead of seducing them; we reared children instead of destroying them; we desired to exclude from the land prostitution, bastardy and infanticide. If George Reynolds [the man who was convicted of committing bigamy] is to be punished, let the world know the facts…. Let it be published to the four corners of the earth that in this land of liberty, the most blessed and glorious upon which the sun shines, the law is swiftly invoked to punish religion, but justice goes limping and blindfolded in pursuit of crime.

In light of the foregoing historical context, I am left wondering whether this is not still the same “land of liberty” referenced by Elder Cannon, or whether his criticisms of government obstruction are not as relevant today? But perhaps the Church has answered my questions with the brief statement it released just yesterday that reaffirmed its stance on the debate now playing out in the Supreme Court:

We firmly support the divinely appointed definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman because it is the single most important institution for strengthening children, families and society. We hope the court will agree, and we look forward to the decision on this important matter.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the first part of that statement, I fail to see the justification for inviting the same government dominion over marriage that the Church condemned and opposed 140 years ago.

I believe that “traditional marriage” is worthy of support and that it is societally beneficial. I simply cannot agree that the state has a compelling and inherent interest in regulating this private institution, and am puzzled at how Latter-day Saints have changed their position over the decades to no longer oppose the state’s involvement in marriage, but rather openly invite it.

  • JessieAMorris

    BrianGreeneLD57 Keep up the good work!

  • GeekNomad

    Agree: government has no role here. Anyone who wants to enter into a marriage should be free to do so with no governmental interference, so long as all parties consent to the union. 
    No church should be forced under penalty of law to perform a wedding that is against their beliefs, but the critical doctrine of separation of church and state cuts both ways: you are free to practice your religion, others are free to practice theirs (or practice none at all.) 
    Federal laws defining marriage are unconstitutional absent a Constitutional amendment, and any such amendment would almost certainly be at odds with freedom of religion.

  • Kellyrerc2
  • Dave Chiu

    the horse is already out of the barn re govt intrusion, but we can hope the law wont be twisted and abused to give enemies of the Church a cudgel for coercing the temples to be closed rather than allow all legal marriages for members who can get a recommend

    • GeekNomad

      @Dave Chiu If I had a horse, and it escaped the barn, I’d still try to catch it and put it back in the barn.  😉

  • Shoal Creek

    The preferred order of governments defining marriage, as I see it from my LDS perspective:
    1. Governments should stay out of marriage completely, with the exception of punishing crimes committed by one spouse against another, leaving marriages and divorces and the like to civil courts, civil contracts, and religions.
    2. If Governments recognize marriage in law, then they should defer to religion and private individuals to define that marriage and not define it legally.
    3. Once governments have defined marriage, they should limit the definition to one that is considered by almost all religions and individuals to be morally correct.
    4. Once governments define marriage that violate many religious beliefs, government should allow the free exercise of religion in religious marriages.
    5. Once governments force religions to violate religious beliefs and morals, then God has decreed that a country with that government is ready for destruction.
    The current battleground is over number 3 on the list. It is a fight over which is the morally correct definition of marriage. The author is advocating moving the battleground back to number 1. While this would be ideal, it is not currently reality and hasn’t been since the mid-1800’s. To make it reality, we need more people to understand the inherent tyranny of government imposition on anything that goes beyond the principles of liberty.
    God gives you the government you deserve and even a majority of LDS people have sadly ignored their earlier leaders’ advice on liberty. So, we have the government we, as a whole, deserve until we can gain a larger percentage of the population working for a free society in which a Zion may be built.

  • hewlettmike

    I think we have mostly given up the idea of government not deciding these issues so if our only options are the government being for or against our convictions, then we would prefer the government rule on our side. I feel like “legal” marriage should just go away and legal partnerships take their place. Marriage should just be a religious institution.

  • Read, re-read, and then read the last paragraph of the proclamation of the family.  It calls upon government to be involved to promote the family as the fundamental unit of society, which contradicts a government stand back approach.

  • jpv

    The polygamy issue is a really strained analogy.  Polygamists just want marry according to their beliefs of marriage privately and not be put in jail for exercising their freedom of religion.  Polygamists have been jailed and are still in prison to this day for this.
    Unlike SSM proponents, polygamists don’t care about the state giving them their blessing or becoming a protected class so that they can force others to accept their beliefs. 
    No gay couple that has had a private gay marriage ceremony and lives together as if they were married has EVER been prosecuted, so don’t try and compare the two situations. Can you imagine if a raid like the one at YFZ happened at a San Francisco gay commune?
    The gay marriage debate is about being able to force beliefs on others, the polygamy debate is about leaving people alone.
    If you want to argue that people should be able file tax jointly, regardless of a marriage certificate, etc, be able to contractually share marriage-like rights, exercise their freedom of speech to declare themselves as married, be my guest, but otherwise your argument is disingenuous.