Marriage, Parenting and the Words We Use

Everyone who is not comatose knows a huge debate is unfolding in this country about the legal basis, and definition, of marriage. Is marriage between one man and one woman, or simply a relationship between two consenting adults (e.g., same-sex marriage), or perhaps more than two adults (polygamy is making a legal comeback, no joke)? The Washington State Supreme Court, in November 2005, ruled in favor of de facto parenthood, another new word and concept to be watched. This concept is a growing popular option for courts, in about out ten states, to decide the visitation rights and legal relationships between children and adults who are not biologically related and not legally married. The particular case in Washington involved two lesbians who had ended a relationship and then a debate began about their respective rights to the child that one of the women had conceived through artificial insemination more than six years ago. Her partner assisted in the process and thus she now claims parental rights to the child they were rearing together.

Judges now award legal status to an adult who filled the “function” of parent for “a sufficient length of time.” The rise of de facto parenthood is seen as a great victory for gays and lesbians, who can’t establish legal parenthood via marriage yet. For reasons that I do not yet fully understand gay couples could seek second-parent adoptions legally but generally do not prefer to pursue this option.

The implications of this legal trend are huge. In a Massachusetts court a dispute between a father, who had served away from home in the military, and an aunt who cared for his eleven-year old child while he was away, was settled by appeal to the same de facto marriage idea. (This reminds us again that with so many attorneys and so many court rulings people will find new ways to "appeal" to these new directions in the law!)

Sara Butler Nardo, writing in The Weekly Standard, observes: “In principle there is no numerical limit to the number of de facto parents a child can have. Custody battles between two parents can get ugly enough—imagine custody battles among three or four” (“De Facto Parenthood,” March 13, page 21).  She adds, “While the courts have attempted to create objective criteria for de facto parenthood, the category remains far fuzzier than parenthood as traditionally defined” (page 21). Rather than asking if the adult has a biological or adoptive relationship to the child the relationship can now be defined by a “parent-like” relationship, a broad definition if the law ever had one.

Nardo concludes, correctly I believe:

In reality, de facto parenthood serves adults more than children, as it continues adults’ liberation from marriage, strengthening  their ability to found or join a family however they wish, without marrying first, or ever.

This new circular definition of parenthood —a parent is a person who performs the function of a parent—is part of a larger trend in family law that sees the law as the creator of the family, rather than one of its many custodians (page 22).

Not only is there a wide-open battle, culturally and legally, for the meaning of the word “marriage” going on today, there is also a huge battle for the meaning of the term “parent.” Is there anyone, at least with a moral compass left, who seriously doubts that the sexual revolution has sown the whirlwind and now we are reaping the bitter fruit of the post-Kinsey era with a hellish vengeance? The real tragedy here is to be seen in the children of this experimentation. I believe these children have become the new mission field, especially for visionary city churches. Some Christians understand all this well, but most are asleep and complaining about the political battles without intelligent concern for the missional implications this brings about in our culture. Only a missional perspective will “see” these new fields as "white for harvest" and thus know how to prepare workers to bring in a spiritual harvest that could impact a decaying culture rather quickly and powerfully. When all is said and done the gospel alone is still the “power of God” that can transform people, marriages, homes and communities. Why do both conservatives and liberals continue to get this wrong, at least when it comes to these polarizing debates?

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