When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015 with the Obergefell v Hodges decision, Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent cited the potential for legalized polyamory, or what was previously called bigamy, as part of his dissent.
In 2022, a New York court recognized legal polyamory as falling under the “right to marry,” and now Somerville, Mass. has taken up the cause as well.
Obergefell hinged on three cases, one in which a dying man wished to be at his same-sex partner’s bedside as he faced death from a terminal illness; another where two women raising children together wanted to share parental recognition under the law; and a third where a military man in a same-sex union didn't want to be married and unmarried simply by crossing state lines.
Each of these cases has a major element of compassion involved. Each of us can imagine the uncertainty and fear that goes along with being denied access in these three cases. Conservatives, in large part and at least publicly, have gone along with the legalization of same-sex unions, as that is the compassionate response.
However, Roberts was right. Undermining the concept of marriage between a man and a woman, which has been the building block of western governance, has incredibly dire consequences for society at large. The right to marry now extends to couples not made of two but of multiples.
Writing in The New York Times in 2015 after the ruling was made, an opinion columnist posited that “it is not hard to imagine another justice in 20 or 40 years saying that” polyamorous relationships, too, are protected under the “right to marry.”
It has not even been 10 years, and already throuples, quadruples, and any other number of partners can be legally recognized as married in a few places. They are legally sharing property, children, and presumably crowd around a dying man’s bedside when the time comes, infuriating nurses and doctors.
A polyamorous 29-year-old city councilor at-large brought the bill to Somerville to legalize polyamory and recognize it as a union against which there could be no discrimination in policing, housing, etc.
“We’re a very queer city,” said Willie Burnley Jr., 29, who practices polyamory. “We have a population that’s more open to these ideas, and many of these folks are either currently nonmonogamous or have tried nonmonogamy or at the very least know someone who’s polyamorous.”
A New York City judge cited Roberts' dissent to Obergefell in determining that polyamorous partners have housing rights just as a married couple would. The judge, ruling that a shared apartment can continue to be held by a surviving member of a throuple upon the death of the leaseholder, used Roberts’ position that if the door were opened to same-sex unions, polyamorous ones would be next.
For Roberts, this was a reason to object to legalizing gay marriage. “If not having the opportunity to marry serves to disrespect and subordinate gay and lesbian couples, why wouldn’t the same imposition of this disability … serve to disrespect and subordinate people who find fulfillment in polyamorous relationships?” Roberts wrote in 2015.
In Somerville, multi-partner units can now register for domestic partnerships, and of course domestic partnerships are what started the ball rolling for same-sex marriage legalization. Those who objected to Roberts’ 2015 concern could either not imagine that society would move further in the direction of familial destruction, or they didn't want to admit it.
The reshaping of family structures means, necessarily, the reshaping of society, governance, culture, and community. America has accepted, and in many ways embraced, same-sex marriage as the compassionate thing to do. Will America do the same for polyamory?