As navigators know, if you start a journey a few degrees off, you must make a correction right away or miss your destination by miles. One would think that the Senate Judiciary Committee would realize this as they convene their inquiry into crimes committed in polygamous fundamentalist groups. They've invited no one to discuss the fine distinctions. For decades, the people who believe in living "the Principle of Plural Marriage" have asked that they not be painted with a broad brush: Just as there are criminals in mainstream society, there are criminals in fundamentalist sectors. Just as there are good people in mainstream society, there are good people in fundamentalist cultures, people who wouldn't dream of abusing their children or taking a young girl to bed.

When people live plural marriage, only one of the marriages is legal. The other marriages are spiritual, and thus--when it comes to the law--could be compared to trysts or common-law marriages, which are commonplace in this country. But people engaged in affairs or living together without the benefit of marriage don't fear of criminal reprisal. People living plural marriage do. That's because of the widespread assumption that polygamy is a crime and polygamists are criminals, even in this day of "consenting adults." The Senate Judiciary Committee, in "stacking the witness list" seems to buy into this assumption.

It is prejudicial to prosecute people for having more than one sexual partner. The inference that all polygamists are criminals, then, takes on the character of an ethnic slur. It's like saying that all African-Americans are lazy or that all Jews are greedy or that all Muslems are terrorists. After a half-century of civil rights enlightenment, one would hope for a more intelligent and fair-minded approach from the great bastion of democracy.

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