Conservative blogs were quick to jump on the story as a vindication of their predictions that legalizing gay marriage would put us on a slippery slope toward polygamy. Ace of Spades HQ asked, "Gay Marriage Will Lead To Polygamy? What Are The Odds Of That?" and replied, "Pretty f'n' good, as it turns out. The first three-party marriage -- well, 'civil union' -- has occurred in the Netherlands." More along the same lines at RedState.org ("Behold, the slippery slope in action"), Christian Coalition Blog ("Next time someone wants to 'pooh pooh' the notion that "civil unions" and/or outright gay marriage will create a slippery slope for degrading the institution of marriage even further, point them to this"), Tacitus ("Senator Santorum, I believe that's your vindication") and other places too numerous to mention. Last night, the story made Fox News as well: Bill O'Reilly, who has long argued that the legalization of same-sex marriage would open the door to polygamy, delivered a gloating I-told-you so at the end of his program.
Netherlands and Belgium were the first countries to give full marriage rights to homosexuals. In the United States some politicians propose “civil unions” that give homosexual couples the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage. These civil unions differ from marriage only in name.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands polygamy has been legalised in all but name. Last Friday the first civil union of three partners was registered. Victor de Bruijn (46) from Roosendaal “married” both Bianca (31) and Mirjam (35) in a ceremony before a notary who duly registered their civil union.
“I love both Bianca and Mirjam, so I am marrying them both,” Victor said. He had previously been married to Bianca. Two and a half years ago they met Mirjam Geven through an internet chatbox. Eight weeks later Mirjam deserted her husband and came to live with Victor and Bianca. After Mirjam’s divorce the threesome decided to marry.
But wait a minute. As Tim Cavanaugh points out at Reason's Hit & Run:
Victor, Bianca, and Mirjam are specifically not entering into a marriage but into a civil union, to which gay couples already have broad access. ... If you're upset that Victor and girls are free to set up their unusual relationship, you could just as easily argue that this shows the need to approve gay marriage and eliminate civil unions.
Actually, it turns out that it's not even a civil union. Victor and his two wives have entered something called a samenlevingscontract, or "cohabitation contract" -- which is not the same thing. Here's what a Wikipedia article (helpfully translated by a Dutch friend) says on the subject:
(Apparently, one principal difference between the samenlevingscontract on the one hand, and marriage/civil union on the other, is that the terms of the contract -- i.e., whether there will be alimony in case of a breakup -- are pretty much set by the parties themselves, except for legal provisions to protect children.)
A cohabitation contract is a written agreement which can to a certain degree be compared to a marriage. It settles the legal and financial arrangements between two partners in a relationship. Other things can also be arranged in this contract, such as agreements about possible children in the relationship.
Since the eighties the contract has become popular with two different groups of people: those who wanted a relationship but didn’t want to get married, and those who lived together and wanted to get married but weren’t allowed to at that time. Because of the introduction of civil unions and later marriage for gays and lesbians, the need for cohabitation contracts has been reduced drastically for this group.
So basically, the kind of contract the trio has entered into predates not only same-sex marriage but gay civil unions in Holland. Apparently there is some confusion over whether a cohabitation contract can include more than two people, or whether someone who is married can also enter into a cohabitation contract with a third person. This is the loophole the de Bruijns and Geven used to legalize their menage á trois. (Were they the first to do so, or merely the first to go public? No one seems to know.) They could not have availed themselves not only of same-sex marriage but even of a civil union, which is essentially marriage in all but name. By the way, in the United States, the law in Vermont expressly states that the parties to a civil union cannot be married to anyone else; I assume the same is true in other states that have legalized same-sex civil unions.
So in fact, one might argue that if anything is being vindicated here, it's the argument that Andrew Sullivan made more than 15 years ago: that domestic partnerships and other "quasi-marriage" mechanisms created to give some legal protections to gay and lesbian couples really do threaten the institution of marriage, and that it's much better, and actually much more conservative, to simply legalize same-sex marriage.
Does that mean there's nothing to the slippery slope argument? No, it doesn't. While I strongly favor equal legal rights for same-sex couples, I have also concluded, as I have written here, that the reasoning used to justify the legalization of same-sex marriage (i.e., the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's assertion, in Goodrich v. Department of Public Health, that marrying "the person of one's choice" is a fundamental right) could be used to support legalization of polygamy. For that to happen, however, there would have to be (1) a non-fringe political movement advocating for the right to multi-partner marriage, and (2) widespread social acceptance of multi-partner relationships. Of course, (1) and (2) are related. At this point in time, neither factor is present: the polyamory movement has about as much influence as the Flat Earth Society, and multi-partner relationships are almost universally regarded as either immoral or just plain weird.
A slippery slope scenario is possible in a cultural sense: once society begins to encourage full acceptance of unconventional sexual/romantic relationships, this acceptance may extend to "poly" relationships and marriages. Some gay rights advocates may be reluctant to take a "judgmental" stand toward any behavior, at least among consenting adults, that runs afoul of traditional morality. It is perhaps revealing that in the Dutch media accounts of the three-way "marriage," the Rosendaal Three say that they rarely encounter negative reactions to their arrangement, except from a "deeply religious co-worker" of Victor De Bruijn's. What's more, so far the only demand for government action to close the loophole (and, if possible, have the trio's cohabitation contract annulled) has come from a small and unpopular conservative Christian party, the SGP. So yes, perhaps once you've convinced people that it's intolerant to oppose gay marriage, they may be more inclined to see opposition to multi-partner marriage as intolerant as well. But no slippery slope is inevitable. There are good arguments against multi-partner marriage that do not apply to same-sex marriage. For one, legalizing mutli-partner marriage would change the nature of heterosexual marriages; legalizing same-sex marriage does not.
Right now, though, I don't want to get into a discussion of whether legalizing polygamy would equal the end of civilization as we know it, or whether banning polygamy, as some of my libertarian friends believe, is just as intolerant as banning same-sex marriage. The point is that the conservatives' presentation of this story -- "from same-sex marriage to polygamy in the Netherlands" -- is substantially inaccurate. So much for the no-spin zone, Mr. O'Reilly.