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,
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