Among those who favor marriage discrimination, one of the arguments commonly trotted out is that if we allow gay marriage, then there is no rationale for for opposing polygamy. This argument is almost too silly to be taken seriously, but one of the key differences it fails to acknowledge is that gay marriage is structurally and functionally identical to “straight marriage,” whereas the introduction of polygamous marriage would require the extensive adoption of legal structures currently unknown in the United States.
Now that coverture has been abolished, marriage is a gender-blind contractual arrangement, with one glaring exception: its entry requirements. Legally, the gender of any particular spouse has no relevance as to how marriage laws are administered — marriage is nothing more (legally speaking) than a specialized contract between two parties which confers on them a laundry list of legal privileges and obligations, as well as recognition as a specialized class under certain statutes, such as, for instance, the tax code or debt collection law.
Because of marriage’s gender neutrality, the recognition of gay marriage requires no change in the law, other than removing gender discrimination in regards to who has access to marriage contracts. Polygamy, on the other hand, is a helluva lot harder to implement. Unlike gay marriage, allowing polygamous marriage would require the creation of an entirely new form of marriage contract — or rather, it would require the creation of entirely new forms of marriage contracts.
While I consider the legalization of gay marriage to be of an extremely greater social, moral, and legal importance than is the question of polygamy, I do think polygamy should be permitted. Or, to put it in a more conservative manner: I am in favor of the deregulation of marriage. Although I am fairly neutral in regards to the idea of polygamy in general, I am a strong proponent of allowing people to structure their lives in whatever manner they believe best serves their own pursuit of life, liberty, happiness, etc. And for some people, that’s going to include non-traditional marriage forms.
Although politically speaking I think it is exceedingly unlikely that polygamy will ever be legalized in the U.S., other states, including Canada, are in fact grappling with these questions now. But what if we did want to make polygamy legal in the U.S.? What would it look like? What legal structures would be required to implement it? This post is intended as a sketch of what would be needed, in terms of legal structures, to create the institution of polygamous marriage: