What is a Family Worth?

by Patrick J. Buchanan – August 11, 1997

How conservative is North Carolina? Well, says a friend who moved there: “Down here, Jesse Helms is our liberal senator.” Last week, North Carolina added to its 24-carat reputation.

An Alamance County jury ordered $1 million paid to a jilted wife — by the woman who allegedly stole her husband. Dorothy Hutelmyer, age 40, contended in court that in 1994, her husband was enticed into an affair by his secretary, who had begun wearing short skirts and joining him on business trips. This year, her husband divorced her, after 19 years of marriage and three children, to marry the secretary-mistress. The jury awarded Mrs.

Hutelmyer $500,000 for alienation of affection and $500,000 for criminal conversations (a North Carolina synonym for adultery). On hearing the verdict, the American Civil Liberties Union went straight into the ozone. Yet, is this not a Solomonic decision? What these 12 North Carolinians are saying is: Marriage is both a sacred bond and an intangible thing of supreme value to those who enter into, honor and cherish it. An outsider who smashes this precious thing deliberately should make restitution. If that secretary had rammed and ruined a Mercedes belonging to Mrs. Hutelmyer, she would have had to pay damages; why ought she not pay, if she set out to destroy something far more valuable to Dorothy Hutelmyer?

What, after all, is a family worth? Mrs. Hutelmyer’s lawyer, James Walker, put it well: “It’s easy to be cynical, and it’s easy to be jaded with all the folks who have affairs.

But look at it this way — if someone came up and said I’m going to give you $500,000 to ruin your marriage, would you take it? … I think the people in our community are saying with this verdict that families are important. … (D)own here … we want to preserve the family.” If there is any message that needs to be sent today, Walker has nailed it.

Divorces and broken families are the causes of many of the most painful of heartaches, and there is scarcely a social problem that cannot be traced to the destruction of the family in this age of affluence and easy divorce. Two-thirds of all teenage suicides are in broken homes; three-fourth of all teen pregnancies involve adolescents in homes that a mom or dad has left. America is beginning to take a hard, second look at no-fault divorce, where either spouse can break up a marriage as easily as a junior-high romance. Too often in such divorces, the spouse at fault — the abusive husband or faithless wife who killed the marriage — is treated the same as the loyal spouse who worked to save it. To treat a betrayed spouse equally with the betrayer is not justice.

While the advertised benefits of no-fault divorce are visible — cleared court dockets, reduced legal costs and not having parents accuse each another in open court of conduct that would scandalize or scar the children — there is a trade-off. Easy divorce laws mean some marriages that might survive a storm go under. And most often, though not always, it is the women and children who suffer the most, and the longest, from a destroyed marriage.

In Florida, the legislature is moving to end no-fault divorces where there are children involved. In Louisiana, a new law takes effect this week creating a “covenant marriage” for those who take their vows seriously. Those entering a covenant marriage agree to accept counseling before any breakup and not to divorce except on such grave grounds as child abuse, adultery or separation for two years. Louisiana has elected to confer special benefits on covenant marriages, such as a 10 percent cut in auto insurance rates. It is no accident that this change in thinking is taking place in a part of America undergoing a religious revival.

Ultimately, to change behavior, one must change belief, and to change laws, one must change the culture — in America’s case, a culture of hedonism that dates back to the 1960s. What that North Carolina jury, Florida and Louisiana are saying is: What the Old and New Testament taught, that marriage is instituted of God and an indissoluble union, is not only a religious truth; it makes a lot of sense if you want to preserve a society. Contrast, if you will, such serious matters with the latest social cause of northern liberalism. New Jersey Gov.

Christine Todd Whitman has just signed a law to punish country clubs whose male members don’t give woman members equal tee times! Now there’s a human rights violation worthy of the ACLU’s attention.