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The Federal Bureau of Marriage?

Liberty Magazine, July 2003
The Federal Bureau of Marriage?
by Stephen Baskerville

The Feds and Families

Looking at the marriage initiative, left-liberals ask why a conservative administration is involving the federal government in something as private as the family. There is irony in these liberals defending the family against the government. Yet many Democrats are certain to go along, because all politicians tend to go along with programs that bring money. Domestic violence programs, for example, enjoy strong bipartisan support, because they distribute federal money to states and localities. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson are strong advocates of federal measures on domestic violence. It is not only public officials. We can look forward to nonprofit groups, churches, counseling programs, and marriage-saving schemes coalescing into a marriage-program lobby.

Joe Laconte describes in First Things how governments have established offices to broker agreements between social service agencies and congregations. One project creates one of the nation's most ambitious mentoring programs for at-risk children. Churches receiving federal payments to serve as father substitutes will not eagerly surrender that job to real fathers who arc likely to do a better job of it. Health and Human Services and the United Methodist Church are seeking to link the 2,200 YMCAs in the United States with the child support offices in their communities. At the very time churches are relinquishing their role as guardians of what is supposedly a sacred covenant, they arc being recruited as government informers.

Secretary Thompson recently announced $2.2 million in grants to faith-based groups to improve the financial and emotional well being of children. Deputy Health Secretary Wade Horn, head of the Administration for Children and Families, says the grants reach out to those who need help in acquiring the skills necessary to build relationships.

Yet only 25 percent of the funds will promote marriage: the remaining three-fourths is for enforcing child support.

Most fathers are absent because the government makes sure they stay absent.

Child-support programs would seem to be at cross-purposes to the promotion of marriage, because child support subsidizes divorce. Yet the Marriage Coalition in Cleveland, an ostensibly faith-based organization which claims to be saving marriages, will receive $200,000 to help collect child support.

A major extension of government power over private life is taking place here. One federal ruling holds that parenting is a right "far more precious than property rights" which "undeniably warrants deference and . . . protection." Yet such apparently unequivocal principles are ignored by courts administering no-fault divorce. The common law has also long recognized, in the words of former Supreme Court Justice Byron White, a "realm of family life which the state cannot enter." Yet current divorce law gives officials the power to intervene In homes at the mere request of one parent, not because the other parent is suspected of a legally recognized offense, but because of ordinary family differences.

Prior to the divorce revolution, legal authority over children had been recognized to reside with their parents until the parents had done something to forfeit it. "For centuries it has been a canon of law that parents speak for their minor children," observed former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. "So deeply embedded in our traditions is this principle of the law the Constitution itself may compel a state to respect it." Yet the state has now institutionalized precisely the opposite principle: that "the child's best interest is perceived as being independent of the parents," in the words of a major child support enforcement contractor, "and a court review is held to be necessary to protect the child's interests."

This phrase, the child's best interest, sounds deceptively benign. Yet it gives the government the power to define this interest over the objections of parents who have done nothing to forfeit their rights. "Such a criterion is dangerous because it renders the claims of all parents to their natural children tenuous," writes Robyn Blumner of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Many accept this practice on the assumption that a judge must decide what is best for children when the parents cannot agree. But empowering one parent to turn control of children over to state officials because of routine family disagreements eliminates private life and invites collusion between officials and that parent.

Next Part: Follow the Money
Other Parts:

This article originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of Liberty, PO Box 1181, Port Townsend, WA 98368. Annual subscription US$29.50. Copyright 2003, Liberty, all rights reserved.

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Posted 2003 07 08