How Does Changing the Law Impact Marriage?

Does changing the law about marriage, to include gay marriage as a legal norm, have any bearing on the culture in general, and one man/one woman marriage in particular? I argued yesterday that it does and I believe many of the advocates of gay marriage admit the same if we bother to listen to them. I gave evidence of these opinions yesterday. Today I want to explore this question with an actual historical illustration that provides clear evidence that changing how the law deals with marriage will have a decided consequence on the strength and longevity of both marriage and the well-being of families.

marriage-expiration Consider the changes in divorce laws that allowed for what we call “no fault divorce.” This change did not begin to gather support and then become law until the 1970s. This time period gives us one generation to study what has actually happened. This change not only made it easier, and less costly, to get a divorce but it changed people’s ideas about marriage as an institution. With it came a change in how parents viewed responsibility for their children. These are all what we sometimes call the “unintended consequences” of such a shift.

It is interesting to note where we first saw this major change in divorce. I frequently ask political conservatives if they know which state led the way in giving us no fault divorce? When I tell them it was California they often say, “Well, of course, everything bad begins there.” But when I tell them who promoted it and signed it into law they are stunned to silence. The answer is Governor Ronald W. Reagan!

Make no mistake about this one conclusion: no fault divorce radically altered marriage in America. I will grant that messy divorces and legal battles are gut wrenching and painful but I will not grant that the only way to bring about meaningful reform in divorce law was to pass no fault divorce. There are clear studies showing that spouses tend to invest less in their marriages after we passed no fault divorce. Economists found that spouses in no fault divorce states were 10 percent less likely to put a spouse through college or graduate school and 6 percent less likely to have children together.

And marriage rates and cohabitation rates increased as men and women lost confidence in marriage as an institution over the last thirty-five years. Some 20 percent of children are now born to cohabiting couples. Over 50 percent of these children will see their parents split before they reach adolescence. This is obviously another unintended consequence that has led to major social change with massive implications for our health and economy.

And legal changes do have consequences. If this was not so then why would gay activists want legal marriage when they could simply seek changes in the law that would provide them with equality?

If you read the literature of the gay activists it soon becomes clear that what they want is to radically alter the entire culture, not simply get marriage for gays. When they speak of what Scott James calls  “open relationships” that would “point the way for the survival of the institution” they are talking about redefining marriage in the culture. We have already seen what these legal changes have done to the institution of marriage. If we hope to protect the central legal understanding of monogamy and marriage we had better be wise now. The unintended consequences may be unintended to many of those who advocate this change but any serious reading of the literature reveals that these are consequences whether we like them or not. Studies in European countries that already have same-sex marriage make the same point.

I will say it again. You do not have to argue from a Christian understanding of marriage and family to defend the institution (as we know it) in the wider culture. In fact, appeals to legal norms and cultural benefits should make anyone pause before they add one more measure to a raging fire that will destroy marriage as we’ve known it for centuries. Just read what the advocates are saying and you will see my point is not without support, rooted both in evidence and in the rhetorical debate itself.

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