Unitarian Group Hopes to Foster Acceptance of "Polymory

No one uttered a word when Harlan White walked into church one day with two women, one on each arm. They were, he says, accepted like any other family in his Unitarian congregation.

``When we walked into the Sunday service -- hand in hand in hand -- no mention was made of it, at least not to us,'' he said.

Now White and others are hoping that, through Unitarian congregations nationwide, their tiny group can foster greater acceptance for those who practice ``polyamory.''

Activists define polyamory as ``responsible non-monogamy,'' or the potential for loving more than one person at a time. They say ``polys'' want honest, intimate, enduring love relationships. They just don't want relationships to be limited to two people.

The Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness, an organization formed three years ago that claims about 72 members across the nation, recently held an informational workshop at the 42nd General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

About 100 people watched as White, a 53-year-old doctor from Seattle whose long gray hair flows onto his shoulders, told of his experiences and talked up polyamory.

``I'm definitely not here to suggest that polyamory is the one true way or a panacea for relationship problems,'' said White, who is secretary of the organization.

But he said, ``Yes, it does work. Yes, it is possible to love more than one person at one time. We know it to be true and trying to convince us otherwise would be like a blind person trying to convince us that colors don't exist.''

Such a workshop wouldn't be held at most other church conferences, but Unitarianism is a different kind of denomination. The association, with 1,101 congregations nationwide, has no doctrine, no hierarchy and no rituals. Congregations are self-governing.

Unitarians believe that personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion. Members don't have to believe in God.

Unitarians have translated their principles through the years into a commitment to progressive movements, from abolition to gay rights -- to the point where, some of its critics say, spirituality has been superseded by social activism.

John Hurley, a spokesman for the association, said any group of Unitarians can form a group around a certain issue.

``That's not to say there's not a wide diversity of opinion on'' polyamory, he said. ``There is. But there's a wide diversity of opinions among Unitarians on almost every issue. We're a diverse group.''

Ken Haslam, 69, a retired anesthesiologist from Chestertown, Md., and one of the founders of the polyamory group, said its members were like everybody else. ``We just do relationships differently,'' he said.

Valerie White, of Sharon, Mass., president of the group and Harlan White's sister, said she hoped that someday Unitarians would be as welcoming to ``polyamorists'' as they have been to gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people.

She wants the word to spread among Unitarian ministers and religious educators that polyamory is ``a viable and ethical lifestyle choice'' and she envisioned ``poly'' ministers leading Unitarian congregations.

Valerie White also welcomed the Supreme Court's recent decision striking down a sodomy law, seeing it as clearing the way for polyamory practitioners.

``The Supreme Court just said the state has no business interfering in the consensual sexual acts of adults and that's that,'' she said.

White, who is in a three-person relationship, said leaders of the group have discussed, but haven't decided to pursue, a bid for ``affiliate'' status within the Unitarian association, which would give them greater recognition.

Conservative activists are critical of the polyamorists.

``I think polyamory is a fancy way of saying 'sleeping around.' For this denomination to even discuss it is an attack on the family. And this type of lifestyle would certainly put children in jeopardy,'' said Kristin Hansen, a spokeswoman for the conservative Family Research Council in Washington.

Jasmine Walston, 46, of Louisville, Ky., vice president of the organization, said practitioners of polyamory worry about alienating their families and discrimination on the job, in housing and in the courts.

Asked if she thought polyamory was wrong, Walston, who was raised as a Southern Baptist and is now in an open marriage, said, ``It's wrong for some people. It's right for other people. ... I don't believe the Bible prohibits multiple loving relationships. I haven't found that anywhere in the Bible.''

``What we need is just to keep the conversation going,'' she said. ``That's the most important thing.''