Joni Mitchell’s classic song from 1970, “Big Yellow Taxi,” says “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Some say Philadelphia Eagles fans will soon feel that way about Donovan McNabb, and perhaps so. But this is about a much weightier matter. I think Pennsylvanians ought to know just how close they came to seeing the long-standing definition of marriage as the union of husband and wife gone.
In a recent case involving a lesbian couple, a Berks County judge was asked to throw out Pennsylvania’s marriage laws. The legal brief argued that “it is time to change our definitions…” This was a direct challenge to how Pennsylvania’s government has always treated marriage.
In specific, a lesbian woman from Berks County sought to divorce her same-sex partner. The two women were hitched in Massachusetts under that state’s law (changed by court order), and one asked a Pennsylvania judge to end their marriage, and while he was at it, to also end marriage as we know it in Pennsylvania.
A judge with a political agenda (“activist judge”) could very well have used this case to strike down our Defense of Marriage Act, and ordered legalization of “same-sex marriage.” That very thing happened in Iowa one year ago.
But this judge, Scott Lash, followed the law. He did not grant a divorce, reasoning that a judge cannot decree a divorce for persons who are not married in accordance with the laws of our state.
The plaintiff’s attorneys argued that our marriage law was “unconstitutional;” that their same-sex marriage should be recognized and a divorce granted. Judge Lash found no grounds in the Constitution compelling him to strike down our law, and for the record he stated why natural marriage receives the recognition and protection in law that it does:
The family is the basic unit of society. It represents one man and one woman coming together to form one being. From this union, comes offspring. Conversely, a same-sex relationship deviates from this traditional concept, for the principals are like beings, without physical complement. They cannot foster offspring, except through artificial or adoptive means.
Of course, a same-sex couple can maintain a loving, monogamous relationship…. This relational commitment, however, does not and could not qualify as a “traditional marriage.”
The judge is right about marriage. It serves a unique and vital role in society, bringing together men and women so children can have mothers and fathers committed to each other and to them. All the family experimentation over the past 40 years — no-fault divorce, the sexual revolution, cohabitation — have been documented failures, precisely because they ignored the public purpose of marriage.
Perhaps it was that same ignorance that led eight members of the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee last month to table (indefinitely delay) SB 707, the Pennsylvania Marriage Protection Amendment. Their vote keeps marriage at risk and denies citizens of Pennsylvania a vote on keeping marriage the union of husband and wife. Citizens in 31 states have voted on that question, and in all of them they solidly chose to keep marriage what it truly is.
Five years ago, Iowa’s Supreme Court ruled on a case strikingly similar to the one here. But the Iowa court ruled the opposite way, and upheld a lesbian couple’s divorce. In response, Iowans who saw the handwriting on the wall pleaded with their elected officials to protect marriage through constitutional amendment.
But like Pennsylvania, Iowa’s amendment process is arduous. Amendments must be approved in two successive legislative sessions before going to a vote of the people. If lawmakers fail to act, the people are denied a vote. Thus far, citizens of both states have been denied. In Iowa’s case, their Supreme Court followed its own lead, overturned that state’s marriage law, and legalized same-sex marriage.
And so, without clear language in our state constitution defining marriage between husband and wife, marriage here remains vulnerable to the whims of judges. Protecting marriage should be front and center for Pennsylvania lawmakers. Without a state constitutional amendment, we are but one case away from radically changing marriage law against the will of the people.
Marriage may not be paradise, but it is the proven foundation of society. Paving it over with a newer and trendier model will only further weaken that foundation, to the detriment of families, children and all of society. It could have happened last month in Berks County; it could happen in another court next month.
Let’s protect it now.
Michael Geer is president of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Family Institute.