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Saturday, July 7, 2007

Step right up to the discussion of UU polyamory.

I have almost nothing to add to the discussion of "polyamory" and Unitarian Universalism over at The Lively Tradition. After all, LT is very competently taking the sort of position I'd take. For anyone who is interested in a previous go-round on this issue, I'll point back to my commentary on polyamory from 2004:

Here's the short version of my perspective, from the second post:

I have argued that suggesting that polyamory represents any sort of "next step" in Unitarian Universalist marriage ethics plays directly into one of the more viscerally compelling (if logically implausible) arguments against same-sex marriage. When conservatives charge that polyamory is next on the slippery slope, how is it helpful to have liberals urging us to start slipping? . . . Is there a slippery slope or isn't there? Look: a strictly "strategic" argument against polyamory essentially concedes that the conservatives are right — polygamy is next on our agenda — but hopes nobody will notice if we don't bring it up just yet. I'm saying that this would be a foolish way to go.

Which leaves three options. The first option is to ignore polyamory. (But it won't go away. It has an advocacy group that wants press coverage and congregational and denominational recognition.)

The second is to acknowledge that Unitarian Universalists have no principled reason to participate in civil marriage at all. By this logic, we're only really committed to individual sexual freedom and object to any legal, religious, or societal constraints on it that aren't established by the participants themselves. This would mean that our churches should stop celebrating marriage ceremonies and our ministers should stop signing marriage licenses — permanently. If marriage is oppressive, wrong, and disciminatory by its very nature, then let's get off that bandwagon altogether. (The chances that our society will buy this line of thinking are nil. The chances that UUs will buy this line of thinking are perhaps somewhat higher.)

The third option is to recognize that the liberal church does have a stake in some social institutions, including marriage. We may not have done much thinking about it lately, but in practice Unitarian Universalists recognize that marriage is a good thing not just for the couple but for the community, that improving and strengthening marriage is a liberal goal, and that our advocacy of gay marriage is rooted not in sexual libertarianism but in a deeper recognition of the value of marriage itself. That's why Unitarian Universalist leaders should oppose calls for the legal or religious recognition of polygamy on principled grounds, and not merely strategic grounds. It is inconsistent with our goals for marriage.

As for comments on this site, I have absolutely no interest in arguing about the merits of polyamory itself. For that conversation, please do visit The Lively Tradition. If you have something to say about the church's relationship to society or to the state, especially regarding marriage, have at it.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 7 July 2007 at 7:38 PM

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h sofia:

July 7, 2007 09:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Our society currently isn't structured to address polyamorous marriages. Polygamous families in this country now have to live with that reality. Only one of the wives is recognized as the legal wife, only some of the children are recognized as "legitimate," and so on.

I don't think this would be such a big deal except that money and property (especially insurance) are so tied up in the rights of the wedded.

Is the UUA equipped to be the vanguard on this issue? I don't think so.

For me, question #2 isn't one I'm asking. Should churches get out of the "business" of marriage? No. But maybe the government should.

will shetterly:

July 7, 2007 09:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm with H Sofia; the government should say, "We do civil unions for tax and inheritance purposes. Marriages are for churches." And each minister and congregation should decide who may marry at their church.

Effectively, this is already the case, of course.


July 8, 2007 10:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

I disagree with Will regarding the place for marriages. I think that the government should say: "I only care about registration of marriages and civil unions. Blessings and rituals are for churches". I.e. religious ceremonies should have no social effect whatsoever beyond the gates of that particular religious building.

As for whether polyamory is OK or not, well, wasn't there a big discussion in the US about those fundamentalist Mormons in Colorado? The wives' argument ran across the lines: "They should respect our chosen lifestyle." It is very difficult to apply the victim/oppressor scheme in a polygamous relationship when the "victim" is the first defender of the situation. Who are we to judge whether polyamory, polygamy, group sex or zoophilia are OK of not, if participants like it and feel good about it? Are we the new moral judges from the left? So I would let consenting adults to arrange their lives as they like (and that they can make their own mistakes as well), and that every congregation decides to bless it or not according to their common or majoritary criteria.


July 8, 2007 10:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

Unfortunately, the "additional" wives in polygamous marriages aren't the only victims in that situation. The children born of these unions are legally illegitimate. That means that if the parents split up, any collection of child support on their behalf would be more problematic than if they were legitimate.

Also, if the father were to die without specifically providing for them by name in a will, they would not inherit anything, at least not without an expensive legal contest. In addition, they probably would not be able to collect any social security survivors' benefits.


July 8, 2007 07:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

At times liberal churches have advanced an ethic of mutual commitment and equallity in marriage. This is an ethic that we have not sufficiently explored, but then we all need to begin somewhere.

Within that ethic, I as a minister at a liberal church (my past church was in the UUA, my current is not in the UUA) have never officiated at the blessing of a plural marriage. Pastorally I would need to be convinced that a state of equallity and mutual commitment exists between all the parties involved. Anything else sets up systems of hierarchy, and the exploitation of third partners as auxillary/second-class partners. Of the 4 poly-trios I've known first hand (1 hetero trio, 1 lesbian trio, 2 trios of gay men) none have met these criteria. All exhibited hierarchies within the trios, unhealthy competition for love, and/or the exploitation of the third person as an auxillary spouse for the primary couple. Even though I am very skeptical of poly-advocacy, this does not permanently close the door for me, BUT it does mean that my standards are high. In fact just as high as when I scrutinize straight couples and gay/lesbian couples who seek ask their religious community to consecrate their relationship. In the practice of my ministry, equallity and mutual commitment must be clearly evident for such a consecration to have integrity.


July 9, 2007 04:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

Clyde suggests that "the order of ministry" — the guild of UU ministers, institutionalized in the UU Ministers Association — needs to do some discernment about the theological meaning of celebrating a marriage. Is the UUMA facilitating such a conversation? I know that the UUMA has talked about polyamory before, but I've never heard what if anything has come from those conversations.


July 9, 2007 05:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

Other resources here at Philocrites: 'Only marriage will really do' (5.18.04); Challenges for gay marriage advocates (7.2.04); 'As long as we both shall love'? (1.2.05).


July 26, 2007 12:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hi. As a member of UUs for Polyamory Awareness and a longtime hanger-outer on poly discussion lists, I can report that there's actually very little interest among polyfolk in pushing for multiple-marriage legislation as seems to be under debate here. Whenever the topic comes up, the discussion quickly runs up on the rocks of what a complicated, varied, and innovative legal regime would be required in practice.

Gay marriage maps very accurately onto the legal structures that are in place for straight marriage -- a vast body of practical law and custom. At least, it has ever since wives became recognized as legal equals to husbands (a development that conservatives warned a couple generations ago, if I remember right, would be a slippery slope to demands for homosexual marriage!)

Committed poly relationships, on the other hand, come in so many varieties that a one-size-fits-all legal structure would be a disaster. Each of the many kinds of bonded poly groups would require its own legal regime. Issues of inheritance, pensions, and community property, for instance, are going to be very different in the eyes of a V-shaped or N-shaped group than for an equilateral triad or a cross-coupled quad.

Moreover, poly groups often informally morph from one type to another. Adaptability as the need arises is considered a good thing in most groups' concept of poly ethics. How would the law keep up?

Nor does the relationship between any two people in the group have to be all-or-nothing. I have friends who would be quite upset at not being called a triad after 12 years together, even though sexually they are a V. How would fuzzy edges be sharply drawn, and how would proof of the edges' current locations be determined in disputes?

Moreover, there would be unprecedented ways to game the system, such as by a group claiming to be a different type of group than it really is, or people claiming to be a poly household when they're not. We all know how good the state is at sorting out personal relationships.

This is where poly-list discussions on the topic rapidly go. It's way too early to try to settle such issues. Good law follows reality, rather than getting unworkably far ahead of it. As polyamory becomes more routine in society, reasonable approaches will become more apparent.

For now, small-business partnership law is much more fitted to handle rights and responsibilities in group families. It's already set up to allow a wide variety of agreements among any number of partners -- basically, whatever the signers wish to agree to.

More to the point, I think what most of us are asking is fairness and decent treatment under current law: non-discrimination, child-custody claims being settled in the interest of the child rather than the interest of a judge's prejudice or personal agenda -- and of course the ability to be out at church.

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