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Constitution Day 2016: “Why No Polygamy?” by John Witte, Jr. (Emory)

Event Type
University of Illinois College of Law
Max L. Rowe Auditorium, Law Building
Sep 16, 2016   12:00 pm  

In celebration of Constitution Day 2016, the University of Illinois College of Law presents a special lecture, featuring John Witte, Jr.

“Why No Polygamy?”

Description: Now that same sex marriage is legal in much of the West, many think that the legalization of polygamy will be next. The first cases challenging the constitutionality of anti-polygamy laws have been filed in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The first rounds of public debate about the legality of polygamy have appeared in elite newspapers, journals, and blogs, with many writers favoring polygamy. The first wave of popular media portrayals of good polygamous families has now broken with shows like Big Love and Sister Wives stoking the cultural imagination and sympathy.

But the legalization of polygamy is neither inevitable nor advisable, I argue, despite the legalization of same sex marriage in many nations. Traditional Western prohibitions on same-sex relationships and many other sexual crimes were largely biblical in origin, and they have fallen aside as biblical faith and has waned and constitutional liberties have waxed. But the Western legal tradition’s prohibitions on polygamy were both pre-Christian in origin and post-Christian in operation, and now serve to enhance rather than erode constitutional liberties, especially those of women and children.

Because these legal arguments are so different, I submit, Western nations can responsibly hold the line against polygamy, even if they choose to accept same-sex marriage and its accompanying norms of sexual liberty, domestic autonomy, and nondiscrimination. I reject ideological arguments, pro and con, that anti‑polygamy laws are a form of traditional Christian morality. I reject slippery slope arguments, from the right and the left, that acceptance of same‑sex marriage must inevitably lead to acceptance of polygamous marriage. And I reject arguments from domestic and international sources that religious freedom norms command the accommodation, if not validation, of religious polygamists. The West may, and in my view should, politely say

John Witte, Jr., JD (Harvard), is Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, McDonald Distinguished Professor, and director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. A specialist in legal history, marriage law, and religious liberty, he has published 230 articles, 15 journal symposia, and 28 books. 

At the conclusion of the lecture, the Family Law and Policy Program will present Professor Witte with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Family Law.

Free and open to the public. 
Lunch provided to lecture attendees.

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