Most Americans, when they think of plural marriage, associate it with the one-male, multifemale households of a rebel offshoot of Mormonism and of some contemporary Muslim cultures — popularly known as “polygamy” (many spouses of both sexes), but more accurately called “polygyny” (many wives). However, these polygynous marriages represent only a fraction of the ways in which adults form families.
Many people rightly feel some concern about religious polygyny’s history of abuse and nonconsent and might feel that anti-plural marriage laws are necessary to prevent such exploitation. However, strong laws already exist against forcing anyone into sex or marriage of any kind — vigorous enforcement would surely suffice to protect the unwilling in a plural marriage recognized under the law.
More problematic, of course, are issues such as child custody, inheritance, hospital visitation, etc., when more than two parties are involved. It is clear that the current legal structure of marriage cannot readily accommodate this problem. For that reason, the Nevada judge’s ruling was probably correct, at least for now.
One solution for the future, though, might be to designate “marriage” as a social institution with no legal standing and to create “civil union” as a legally recognized subtype of business partnership, available to anyone who is willing to make the appropriate commitments.