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Jewish World Review April 18, 2000 /13 Nissan, 5760

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What do divorcing couples owe minister, guests?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AN ORDAINED MINISTER, obviously quite frustrated with what he perceives as the frivolous nature with which people enter into, and leave from, their marital covenants, wrote me with the following suggestion:

"Am I within moral bounds to sue a divorcing couple? I performed their wedding about 18 months ago. They begged and begged and begged me to do the wedding. They also promised me repeatedly that they were in it for the long haul.

"Do you think taking them to court for some token amount would be a good idea? They made a promise to God, to me, and to the guests at their wedding that they would stay married until death.

"I think they made a binding oral contract before 100 witnesses. I acted as an agent on behalf of G-d and the church in good faith and provided a service for them on the condition that they were marrying for life. They are breaking the contract, and I want compensation for wasting so many hours on that wedding!"

When I opened that question up for response from my radio audience, the faxes came in fast and furiously. A full 60 percent were outraged at such a suggestion from a "minister of the Lord," while 40 percent were intrigued by the possible benefits of such a threat in persuading married folks to "try harder" to stay together.

Before I report on the specifics of the pro-con arguments, there was a third category of responses which included more creative suggestions to promote the concept of commitment. Laurie, from Sacramento, Calif., wrote: "I would think all who attended should be able to sue for fraud, calling the marriage ceremony a deceitful attempt to extract cash and gifts from unsuspecting friends and family."

Juana, an ex-minister's wife from Alpine Village, Calif., suggested: "Why not hold a tribunal with the witnesses and the warring couple and do a real intervention? Perhaps when the couple hear what the witnesses have to say, they will decide to work hard and put their marriage back on the track they promised themselves -- and more important, G-d."

One woman, who asked to remain anonymous, was born in India but married in the United States. Her husband left her and the children. Her perspective highlights the issue of accountability when one decides to leave a marriage. "I would tell the minister that he should invite all the guests and un-perform the ceremony. I would want my husband to tell everyone why he does not want to stay married to me in exactly the same way he said he wanted to marry me. He has to say why. My brother paid for the wedding when I got married. Now my ex should pay for the divorce ceremony. He should give a token gift to each and every one who came to that ceremony because they all had brought a gift."

For one listener, the issue of accountability became a divine and eternal one: "The divorced couple will eventually die. I think they'll have enough problems when God looks at them and asks, 'Why did you lie to me?' That will be far worse than coughing up money to the preacher that married them."

What many of the "no"-sayers pointed out, and rightfully so, is that there are times when -- due to fraud and misrepresentation, violence, sexual perversion, serious criminal activity, infidelity, lack of financial support, neglect of children -- one sees no alternative. However, from my experiences talking to folks on-air, the bigger problem is that really getting to know the truth about each other, and seriously weighing these truths in making a judgment about marital vows, is the exception, not the rule.

Dan, a minister from Vinita, Okla., confirmed that when he wrote: "I have not performed a wedding for several years because of my requirement that couples go through four to six months of premarital counseling, preferably with a licensed therapist. The church will help with the expenses. When hearing this, most couples find another preacher.

"Since I take the marriage union seriously, do not agree with sex before marriage or living with one another before marriage, even though society says it's acceptable, I don't do many weddings. I suspect many ministers would perform fewer if the preacher were allowed to sue."

Finally, Bob from Panama City, Fla., chides our frustrated, litigious minister: "He will just have to accept the fickleness of mankind and marry anyone who is at least willing to do the correct thing by getting married."

Is that it? Do we just dumb ourselves down to the lowest measure of effort and commitment? Do we bribe people into raising the bar? Do we shame those who seem to be just "throwing in the towel"? This isn't just about vows or just about adults. It's primarily about the souls and psyches of the children whose lives are torn apart and made crass by the willy-nilly, serial pairing antics of their parents. What "token amount" do we pay them?

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