"Those Whom God Hath Joined Together Let No Man Put Asunder"
Six years ago I took wedding vows in a church within the Diocese of Washington. I dutifully recited "till death do us part," and the minister declared, "What God hath joined together..." and so forth. On my wedding ring are inscribed the words, "pour toujours."
Five years later, and after the birth of my first child, I found myself summoned to court in Fairfax County (where I did not live) on 36 hours notice. Though I was accused of no wrongdoing and had given no grounds for divorce, I was interrogated by a lawyer and forced to answer a series of humiliating questions about intimate aspects of my relationship with my daughter, conversations with my wife, and a variety of private family matters.
Without a lawyer of my own and with very little opportunity to speak on my own behalf, I was then legally stripped of custody of my child and told to stay away from her all but two days a week. A restraining order was placed on me preventing me from taking her outside the jurisdiction of the court (a jurisdiction thousands of miles from my home), and I was ordered to surrender all her documents in my possession, including her British passport.
I was then told that I could see my second child (who was not yet born) for one three-hour period on a weekday every two weeks. Had I refused to comply I could have been jailed. Now, a year later, my marriage can be dissolved over my objections and my rights as a parent terminated.
Few people realize the virtually absolute power of courts to invade and carve up a family, to take children away from parents who have done nothing wrong, to dissolve marriages without giving any reasons and to order the summary incarceration of parents who refuse to acquiesce - few people, that is, to whom it has not happened.
Naturally I feel I was deceived when I married in the church, and so apparently was the minister who married me. Like most people, I assumed that if I kept my vows and obeyed the law, no one could separate me from my children or interfere in my family without my consent. From talking to my own pastors and others, it is clear that this is also what they and most of their congregations assume. Yet I have come to realize that my experience is shared by hundreds if not thousands of parents every day.
These quasi-totalitarian practices directly concern the churches, not simply because all matters of morality and social justice concern the churches but also because they touch the validity and integrity of their holy offices. Given how widely my ignorance is shared even by educated people, our clergy may be forgiven for not realizing the contempt in which their blessing is held by a state whose instruments, in part, they are. Yet as long as marital and parental bonds can simply be dissolved by the state at the request of one spouse with no grounds, wrongdoing, legal action, or agreement by the other, our pastors should consider how far they may be - however inadvertently -- deceiving their flock and dishonoring their calling.
Family law throughout most of the United States now allows a parent to unilaterally remove a child from the other parent and dissolve a marriage without any grounds or evidence of wrongdoing. Even more shocking, a parent who does this cannot expect to be punished by the courts; on the contrary, he or she can expect to be generously rewarded with custody, child support, and other financial rewards. Not surprisingly, disturbing numbers of children are routinely separated from loving, responsible parents for reasons that have nothing to do with their wishes, safety, health, or welfare.
This system of rewarding child snatching naturally encourages more and generates enormous profits for matrimonial lawyers, who now openly advise their clients to this course of action. (Failure to do so can be considered malpractice.) For this reason family courts today have the appearance (and increasingly the substance) of a child kidnapping and extortion racket. The price of course is paid with the lives of innocent children.
You may wonder why you have not heard about this before. It is true that it receives little attention from most media - The Washington Post for example. But you indeed hear of it often, though owing to selective reporting by the mainstream media you may not recognize it when you hear it.
You have heard that 50% of marriages end in divorce, though you probably do not know that some 80% of these are over the objection of one spouse (close to 100% when children are involved). You have heard about "custody battles," but you probably do not know that most start out as unilateral child abductions. You have heard about the witch hunt for "deadbeat dads," though you do not know how many are ejected fathers like me who are vilified by a government that has taken their children without cause. You have heard the hysteria over "child abuse," but you do not know that most accusations are shown to be false and used to remove children from their parents.
You have heard about "overloaded courts," though you may not know how far courts create business for themselves by encouraging child stealing and other forms of belligerence. You have certainly heard about violent crime, about adolescent drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, child suicide, truancy, and a host of other social ills whose single most important cause is not poverty, race, or poor education but single-parent homes.
As those called to consecrate marriage, our pastors need to become aware of and speak out against this desecration of their sacred office. Most are aware that in performing marriage ceremonies they are acting as agents of the state. What they probably do not realize is that the very state on whose behalf they are acting and which they are probably assuming to be the final guarantor of the integrity of marital and especially parent-child bonds is in fact the greatest threat to those bonds.
It may even be time to give serious consideration to (what many clergy already favor for other reasons) suspending further marriage ceremonies until this abuse is rectified. At the very least couples must clearly understand that the rite now provides virtually no protection to parents or children from arbitrary invasion by the state.
In today's society there are many threats to the family which defy blame and remedy, but this is not one of them.
Copyright © 1998 Stephen Baskerville
Stephen Baskerville is a lecturer at Howard University and a parishioner of Christ Church in Alexandria