It's sad to see how far conservatives -- those defenders of traditional morality and law-and-order -- have strayed from the values which made our country great. In the old days you could count on our nation's moral absolutists to conduct a stoning when the circumstances demanded. They might even hand out a scarlet letter or two. But in these morally degraded times, even the most strident moralists content themselves with politically expedient half-measures.
Take the assertions of one Republican running for the state attorney general's office this year, Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor. "I believe marriage between one man and one woman is under assault and I will do everything in my power to aggressively defend it," Castor announced on March 4. Sounds good, sure, but he clearly doesn't mean it. After all, according to data provided by the National Center of Health Statistics, Pennsylvania has about 3,000 divorces a month. Every year, 72,000 divorcees are openly, brazenly walking the street -- some in Montgomery County itself! Yet Bruce Castor does nothing.
You might object that divorce isn't illegal in Pennsylvania, that a DA can't act unless a crime is committed. But you don't know Bruce Castor. When marriage is at stake, the absence of a crime doesn't prevent him from threatening a prosecution. In fact, he's threatened criminal action against someone, Montgomery County Register of Wills Frances Pierce, who isn't even getting divorced.
In late February, Pierce asked her office's lawyer what to do if a gay or lesbian couple came to her office requesting a marriage license. None had done so; Pierce just wanted to be prepared. In recent weeks, gays and lesbians have been participating in wedding ceremonies from San Francisco to New Paltz, New York. And you know what they say about New Paltz, New York: If gay marriage can make it there, it can make it anywhere.
It didn't take long for Pierce to get her answer. Her solicitor pointed out that Pennsylvania had its own version of the national "Defense of Marriage Act," legislation that made it impossible for same-sex couples to marry in Pennsylvania. Case closed.
Or not. Pierce didn't ask for Castor's advice, but once Castor got wind of her question, she got it anyway. So did everyone else, after he posted his legal opinion on his Web site, www.brucecastor.com. "It is my judgment," Castor portentously informed Pierce in letter dated March 2, "that should you [issue] a marriage license to a gay or lesbian couple, you and your office would potentially face criminal liability."
Castor's hard-line stance bemused some of his colleagues in law enforcement, many of whom apparently have enough real crime to deal with that they don't threaten to prosecute crimes that haven't occurred. "Nobody would recognize that as a legal marriage," one such DA told the Allentown Morning Call. "Basically it would be a worthless piece of paper." You might as well charge Parker Brothers with forgery for every $500 bill of Monopoly money it prints.
Castor, though, is unbowed. While most legal opinions are not disclosed publicly, Castor's came with its own press release. "There should be no â€˜Rosie O'Donnell' weddings in Pennsylvania, and there won't be if I'm the attorney general," the release proclaimed.
Many Pennsylvanians, I'm sure, are grateful for any protection the law can offer against Rosie O'Donnell. But the politics at work here are pretty obvious. According to a recent "Keystone Poll" by Franklin and Marshall College's Center for Opinion Research, 39 percent of Pennsylvanians "strongly oppose" giving gay couples the same legal rights as married couples. Only 21 percent of Pennsylvanians say they "strongly support" doing so. Opposition is probably even stronger among Republicans, the constituency Castor must win over in the April primary.
And Castor clearly knows how to push their buttons. When an aide to Castor's rival in the AG's race, Republican Tom Corbett, charged Castor with "political grandstanding," Castor fired back -- with more grandstanding. In a March 5 statement, Castor claimed that Corbett, who has said same-sex marriages weren't really an issue, was dodging the question. "Tom Corbett sounds more like John Kerry on this issue than George Bush," Castor claimed. Ooooooooooooo.
By contrast, Castor added, "As attorney general, I will...be prepared to stand up to liberal special interest groups looking to violate our statutes."
But what should be worrying Republican moralizers like Castor is this: Liberals aren't the only ones supporting civil unions. A number of libertarians and small-government conservatives also don't think the government has any place dictating who gets married. For many of these pro-free-market laissez-faire Republicans, in fact, civil unions may be the only kind of union. Indeed, if you factor in the people who told the Keystone Poll that they "somewhat support" civil unions for gay couples, a total of 42 percent of people support rights for gay couples to one degree or another. That's a huge shift; just a few years ago, no pollster would have dared to ask the question at all.
These days, even stalwart Republican voices like the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review react warily to discussions of a Constitutional amendment precluding gay marriage. And that's only the latest assault on the family launched by the Trib's publisher, Richard Mellon Scaife: Scaife was once -- brace yourselves -- divorced!
So if Castor is serious about defending marriage, he ought to strike the problem at its roots. He should start by prosecuting those who commit adultery -- which, unlike homosexuality, is prohibited by the Ten Commandments themselves. While we're at it, he should demand that marriage licenses be denied to people seeking a second marriage, even to fellow Republican politicians. A "No Newt Gingrich weddings" policy would be the law of the land, and many Pennsylvanians would be grateful for that protection too.
You could never get anybody to pass such a law, of course, but so what? We're threatening prosecutions for crimes that haven't taken place...just to punish same-sex couples for the collapse of marriages they aren't allowed to take part in. How much of a leap would it be for Castor to begin enforcing laws that don't exist, using police powers he doesn't have?