The Dutch authorities are not going to annul the so-called samenlevingscontract or “cohabitation contract,” a civil union registered before a notary, which a man recently concluded with two women whom he now considers to both be his wives. Piet-Hein Donner, the Dutch minister of Justice, responded in the negative to a request of the Dutch parliamentarian Cees Van der Staaij to annul the “trio marriage.” Van der Staaij is a member of the smallest party elected in the January 2003 general elections, the Calvinist SGP, holding two of the 150 seats in parliament.
Homosexual couples are legally allowed to marry in the Netherlands, but those in polygamous relationships must find other ways of formalizing their cohabitation. This is why last September Victor de Bruijn and his two “bisexual” women went to the notary in their wedding attire to exchange rings between the three of them.
Donner, a member of the largest Dutch party, the Christian-Democrat CDA (44 seats), said that such samenlevingscontracten are not illegal because the polygamy prohibition only applies to people that are formally married. According to the minister: “‘Marriage’ denotes ‘civil’ marriage, i.e. marriage as the law exclusively defines it.” The minister stressed that people married in such a [civil] way cannot marry someone else. A cohabitation contract, however, is different, he stated, adding that “contracts that settle the cohabitation of more than two persons can have a useful ordering function.”
SGP leader Bas van der Vlies warned for a legal mess now that the Dutch authorities have sanctioned the union of Victor de Bruijn and his two wives. “These people” van der Vlies said, “have celebrated and publicly confirmed their samenlevingscontract as a marriage. This is about an intimate communion which is more than just a practical arrangement.”
“From a Christian-Democrat minister one might have expected a less acquiescent attitude in such a sensitive matter,” van der Vlies added. “The minister is also ignoring the fact that in this case both women can have children by the same man. This will entail complications, also legally. This is polygamy in practice, and that is something which Dutch law explicitly forbids.”
In the United States the authorities intervene regularly to prevent polygamous relationships, even when these have not been officially registered in “civil” marriage contracts, cohabitation contracts or other types of civil or legal unions.
Since polygamy is a criminal offense, polygamists do not seek marriage licenses. However, even living as married can send you to prison. Prosecutors have asked courts to declare a person as married under common law and then convicted them of polygamy. This is what happened in the case of [Tom] Green, who was sentenced to five years to life in prison. In his case, the state first used the common law to classify Green and four women as constructively married – even though they never sought a license. Green was then convicted of polygamy.
The American authorities recognise polygamy when they see it. The Dutch authorities, apparently, do not. But neither do some American liberals.