Tradition of monogamous marriage traced in polygamy hearing by Daphne Bramham

Postmedia News

January 10, 2011
VANCOUVER — There is a consistent, 2,500-year tradition of marriage as the monogamous union of two people and a 750-year tradition of polygamy as a crime, an expert testified in a case that could influence the rewriting of Canada’s laws against polygamy.

At times, polygamy was a crime punishable by death, said John Witte, Jr., the director of the Law and Religion Center at Emory University.

Witte is testifying in the constitutional reference case in B.C. Supreme Court that will determine the validity of Canada’s polygamy law.

Witte traced Western marriage laws and traditions back to Greco-Roman times and then followed the evolution through to the 21st century when the definition of monogamous union between two people was expanded in some jurisdictions to include same-sex couples.

From Aristotle to the Hebrew Bible to Christianity’s New Testament to Thomas Aquinas in the Enlightenment to jurist David Hume to utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham on into the 20th Century, Witte says all have argued that polygamy is damaging both to individuals and the society at large.

The professor said women have been coerced into arranged marriages where they are often raped or battered, sold or bartered by their fathers or guardians, isolated by being confined to their homes, and impoverished because their husbands have less capacity to provide for them post-divorce or post-death. Additionally, Witte said polygamy “betrays the ideals of mutuality, love and devotion” that are associated with marriage and is “a violation of the fundamental dignity and rights of women.”

Children are subject to inequality, rivalry and violence involving half-siblings and other mothers or wives, as well as fewer economic and educational resources, he said.

Meanwhile, polygamy leaves men without an equal opportunity to have a marriage partner. Over the centuries, Witte said, polygamy has been said to have induced a false appetite for patriarchy and inflamed the lust of men who continually want more wives.

For societies, the long-standing examples of harms have included child brides, sexual exploitation, assault and violence as well as a disproportionate need for social welfare because polygamous men are not able to provide for their wives and children, he said.

The stories of Jacob and King David from the Bible’s Old Testament are examples of such harm, he said. Both of the patriarchs were polygamous and the discord sowed in their families by polygamy led not only to jealousy, but incest, children sold into slavery, wives becoming slaves and violence. In the story of King David, the inter-family murders eventually led to a civil war in Israel.

Witte was testifying as a witness for the attorney general of Canada, who takes the position that the law is valid and does not breach the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and free expression.

Under cross-examination, Witte was questioned about his views on same-sex marriage. Witte was an expert witness in the high-profile Ontario case that ultimately resulted in the Supreme Court of Canada deciding that it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples to marry.

He noted that prohibitions on sodomy and same-sex relationships were “an invention of Christendom” that were unheard of in Greco-Roman times.

Lawyer Tim Dickson, appointed by Chief Justice Robert Bauman to argue that Canada’s law ought to be struck down, suggested that polygamy is also a Christian-inspired offence.

Witte rejected that characterization, referring back to his early comments about Greco-Roman laws and traditions.

But if same-sex marriage is OK, why not polygamy? Dickson asked.

Witte answered polygamy is not dyadic — it involves more than two people — and it provides none of the classical “goods” associated with marriage. Those include mutual companionship, love, protection against sexual sin or harm to the household as well as protection and support for vulnerable children.

The trial being heard by B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman is expected to run until the end of January.

The issue was referred to the court after two leaders in the B.C. fundamentalist Mormon community of Bountiful — Winston Blackmore and James Oler — had polygamy charges against them stayed in 2009.

Vancouver Sun


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: