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Legal Protections for People in Polyamorous Relationships

New developments in a changing social landscape.

After decades of fear of stigma and concern for its impacts, polyamorous people finally have something to celebrate on the legal front. Previous posts in this series have identified the many ways in which polyamorous folks are vulnerable to stigma and discrimination, such as polyphobia, the reasons poly folks do not want to be on reality TV, the possibility of getting fired, polyamorous parents' well-founded fear of losing custody of their children, the blanket assumption that polyamorous families are bad for children, fear of the polyamorous possibility, and a host of legal issues associated with being outside of a recognized family framework.

Until recently, these various concerns were all based on the fact that there were no legal protections to shield people in polyamorous relationships from the negative impacts of stigma and discrimination. Polyamorous activists across the U.S. had gotten excited about the possibility of legal protection when the city council in Berkeley, California, passed a nondiscrimination ordinance that included protections for polyamorous and other CNM relationships. But that ordinance has foundered in implementation and remains unenforced. A similar ordinance is under consideration in San Francisco. This year, however, outside of California there have been two significant moves towards protecting consensually non-monogamous people and their families.

Utah Decriminalizes Polygamy

In 1896, Utah was forced to choose between admission to the expanding United States or continuing the practice of plural marriage that the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) had instituted as part of their religion. Leadership of the LDS church and state officials ultimately chose to forbid plural marriage and become part of the United States. The official LDS church has condemned polygamy (practiced as polygyny among the LDS, with some select men able to marry multiple women) and embraced monogamous marriage, though splinter groups of Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) continued to practice polygyny. State laws deemed polygamy a third-degree felony, punishable with up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Earlier this year, Utah state officials decided to decriminalize polygamy, in part because laws criminalizing polygamy were “unenforceable,” according to Utah state senator Deidre Henderson. While polygamy is not legally recognized by this ruling, it is no longer a felony. And although polygamists can still be fined for being married to more than one person, they can no longer be incarcerated for it. This ruling also applies to polyamorous and other people in consensually non-monogamous relationships in Utah.

Somerville Recognizes Polyamorous Partnerships

In the most surprising and sweeping legal recognition of multiple-partner relationships, an ordinance in Somerville, Massachusetts that city council members proposed on June 25 and the mayor signed into law on June 29 grants domestic partnership recognition to people in multiple-partner relationships. Initially the city council was discussing ways to allow unmarried partners to visit their loved ones hospitalized with COVID-19. Eventually, that conversation broadened to include people who do not live together and those in multiple-partner relationships.

While this move is significant for Somerville residents who are in multiple partner relationships and symbolically for the larger CNM community, it has somewhat limited range in practice. As a city ordinance, for instance, it cannot mandate that corporate employers based elsewhere cover city residents' multiple partners on their health insurance or require the federal government to provide multiple partners with Social Security benefits. This ordinance can, however, provide unprecedented legal protections for people in multiple-partner relationships.

Kimberly Rhoten, a lawyer and doctoral student, explained that, “Despite its shortcomings, the new ordinance is an essential step towards full legal recognition and protection of Somerville’s diverse family structures, especially those structures that don’t fit neatly within legal marriage. This includes relationships above and beyond polyamorous ones, such as extended kinship networks, platonic long-term life mates, and many others.” Perhaps most significantly, Sommerville’s new ordinance grants people in domestic partnerships the same rights that married people have, like visiting their beloveds in the hospital and (if city employees) providing them with employer-sponsored health insurance. Rhoten concludes, “These rights are invaluable and unprecedented as non-traditional families have, until now, been denied equal access to government protections afforded to normative monogamous partnerships.”

Diana Adams, Executive Director for both the Chosen Family Law Center in the United States and the Euro LGBT Family Law Institute, practices family law in New York and Germany. During her decades serving as a legal advocate for families of sex and gender minorities, Adams has witnessed what the lack of legal protections can do to families who are left vulnerable to stigma and discrimination. “All families deserve the support of legal stability and recognition, including the many polyamorous partners among our clients and communities. Many in polyamorous relationships will now benefit from health insurance coverage through their partners, which is essential especially in these times of COVID-19. Ultimately, we shouldn't need to depend upon our employers or relationships for health insurance, but while that is our American system, those in polyamorous relationships shouldn't lack health insurance coverage because some disapprove of their relationship configuration.”

While this small step towards legal protection is enforceable only within a highly localized area, it is nevertheless significant. When cities enact ordinances such as these at the local level, it can serve to inspire others to consider and perhaps even craft similar protections of their citizens. Adams concludes, “At Chosen Family Law Center, we plan to introduce similar domestic partnership ordinances in progressive cities, and welcome local advocates to get in touch for support and collaboration. Somerville is just the beginning of a movement for partnership protections for polyamorous and multi-parent families.”

More from Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CSE
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