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Jewish World ReviewDec. 27, 1999 /18 Teves, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Sometimes it matters quite a lot what government thinks -- WHEN MY HUSBAND AND I married more than a dozen years ago, we instructed the officiating pastor not to refer to the state government during our ceremony. As in the typical "... and by the power vested in me by the state of Illinois, I now pronounce you husband and wife" kind of thing.

At the time, idealistic young things that we were, our view was that we didn't want the government involved in our wedding. We didn't care what the government thought, we said, only what G-d thought.

(For my mother's part, she thought little of the idea. Concerned, she had me check the law to ensure that omitting the reference to the state wouldn't invalidate the marriage. I checked --- we're legally married.)

Now older, and hopefully a little bit wiser, I've come to realize that when it comes to many aspects of a democratic society, it matters quite a lot what government thinks, and appropriately so. Through law the government can act to either preserve and protect, or denigrate and deconstruct, institutions that serve as the foundation to our very civilization.

The most fundamental of those institutions, of course, is the family. In recent decades government at the state and federal level has acted to weaken this most important unit of society by loosening the bonds of marriage that undergird it.

Government has acted to undermine the sanctity, permanence, and prominence of marriage and thereby to breakup the family in a number of ways. Two examples: Allowing easy divorce and establishing welfare rules that encouraged poor fathers to leave their homes or never enter them to begin with. Such policies have had a tremendously negative and chaotic impact on our culture, particularly when it comes to women and children whom marriage was most designed to protect.

Now, in an extraordinary and unprecedented move, a handful of activist judges in Vermont have just ordered the legislature there to grant homosexuals any and all rights that accrue to married heterosexual couples, such as automatic inheritance rights and health insurance benefits.

The legislature must soon decide whether to recognize gay couples as domestic partners, granting them all rights due married couples, or to allow them to marry outright. Never mind that the latter idea in particular, which at this point seems eventually inevitable, would be a sweeping change throwing out thousands of years of tradition and history as if it were of no more value than yesterday's newspaper (which may be one reason most Americans steadfastly oppose it.)

Never mind that, based on the Vermont decision, there would be no justifiable grounds on which to prohibit, say, polygamy or incestuous marriage of consenting adults. Never mind that one can both be against a recognized institution of gay marriage -- can even find homosexuality itself immoral -- and yet be for preserving and protecting the civil rights of gay men and women.

The issue here is that, once again, the view of marriage as a unique, self-sacrificing, lifelong bond between a man and woman has been weakened. And this further erodes one of the strongest and most stabilizing, restraining building blocks on which the structure of our culture rests. This has consequences for all of us because the institution of marriage is really only worth protecting and preserving if we as a culture objectively see it as a moral good with inherent meaning, obligations and privileges.

But if marriage has no real definition, if it can be made or broken at will, if a home and family built on the unique contribution and interaction that a man and woman bring to it is no better than any other arrangement, then where is the sanctity of marriage? What is the point of marrying at all, or working hard to preserve the union? What is, in the end, the unique value of marriage?

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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©1999, Scripps Howard News Service