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.