Why is Polygamy illegal in the U.S? A Legal Perspective

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Why is Polygamy illegal in the US

In the diverse and ever-evolving landscape of American law, the topic of polygamy stands out as a subject of both historical significance and contemporary debate. As a legal expert with a focus on family law and civil rights, I aim to unpack the complex legalities surrounding polygamy in the United States. This comprehensive exploration will delve into the reasons behind its illegality, the interplay between religious freedom and law, and the ongoing discussions about polygamous relationships in the modern legal context.

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Polygamy, the practice of marrying multiple spouses, has been illegal across the United States for over a century. The roots of this prohibition can be traced back to the late 1800s, particularly with the passage of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in 1862. This federal law was enacted during a period when the practice of polygamy, particularly by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), was a contentious issue.

The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act and Subsequent Legislation

The Morrill Act made bigamy – marrying while already married to another person – illegal in the territories controlled by the U.S. and set the stage for further anti-polygamy legislation. Later, the Edmunds Act of 1882 and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 reinforced these laws, criminalizing polygamous cohabitation and leading to significant legal action against polygamists, particularly in Utah.

Constitutional Challenges and Supreme Court Rulings

The legality of polygamy has been challenged on several occasions, with defendants often arguing that their First Amendment right to religious freedom should protect their practice of polygamy. However, in landmark cases such as Reynolds v. United States (1879), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of anti-polygamy laws, stating that religious belief did not exempt individuals from compliance with the law.

The Reasons Behind Its Illegality

The prohibition of polygamy in the U.S. is underpinned by several key considerations:

  1. Public Policy and Social Order: Laws against polygamy reflect societal norms and the government’s interest in maintaining social order. Polygamy is seen as contrary to the Western cultural norm of monogamous marriage.
  2. Protection of Vulnerable Individuals: There are concerns that polygamous relationships can lead to exploitation, abuse, and unequal treatment of women and children.
  3. Legal Complications: Polygamy presents complex challenges in areas like inheritance, child custody, and spousal rights, potentially leading to legal ambiguities and disputes.

While polygamy remains illegal in all 50 states, the degree of enforcement and the penalties imposed for violations can vary significantly. In recent years, some states, such as Utah, have lessened the penalties associated with polygamy, categorizing it as an infraction rather than a felony. This shift reflects a nuanced approach to the issue, recognizing the need to balance legal enforcement with the protection and support of individuals in polygamous communities.

Changing Social Attitudes and Ongoing Debates

The discussion around polygamy in the U.S. continues to evolve, influenced by changing social attitudes and increased visibility of different family structures. Advocates for the decriminalization of polygamy argue for the right to consensual adult relationships, regardless of marital structure, while opponents maintain concerns about potential abuses within polygamous arrangements.

As the legal and societal landscape changes, the future of polygamy laws in the U.S. remains uncertain. It is crucial for legal professionals, lawmakers, and the public to engage in informed discussions about the implications of these laws and the balance between individual freedoms and societal interests.

For attorneys and individuals navigating issues related to polygamy, understanding the intricate legal framework and the evolving nature of family law is essential. Whether addressing criminal charges, family disputes, or advocating for legal reforms, a nuanced understanding of the historical, cultural, and legal aspects of polygamy is vital.


In conclusion, the illegality of polygamy in the United States is rooted in historical legislation, cultural norms, and concerns about social order and individual rights. While the practice remains illegal under federal and state laws, recent shifts in enforcement and social attitudes suggest a complex and ongoing conversation about the place of polygamous relationships in American society. As legal professionals, it is our responsibility to stay informed, provide nuanced guidance, and contribute to the discourse on this multifaceted issue, ensuring that the legal system evolves in a way that respects both societal values and individual liberties.

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