Couple Resists Latest Attempt to Legislate Social Behavior

January 21, 2009 03:02 PM
by Cara McDonough
Throughout history, government attemps to legislate social behavior have often met with rebellion from the general public. Now one couple is standing up to Michigan’s paternity act.

Parents Speaks Out

Rebecca Witt and Gary Johnson aren’t falling into line.

The couple, who have three children, face a choice: if the two get married, Johnson can forgo paying $3,800 in medical bills accrued during their daughter’s birth about a year ago. The couple is permitted to do so because the state’s paternity act allows a father to waive the fees if he marries the child’s mother. Medicaid paid for Witt’s bills at the time, but Johnson is now responsible for 49 percent of the total.

Johnson hasn’t paid, but the couple says it isn’t because of the money. "I don't think anybody has a right to tell anyone who they have to marry or when they have to get married," Witt said, reports The Detroit News.

Apparently marriage is more important than money to the state. The law was enacted five years ago in an effort to “maintain the sanctity of marriage,” according to Genesee County officials. Advocacy groups across the country have reacted to the recent case.

"It is despicable that the state would wave medical bills like a shotgun in the face of a low-income (family)," said Nicky Grist of the group Alternatives to Marriage, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to the Chicago Tribune.

Other groups, like Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association, commend Michigan’s actions, saying government has the authority to encourage marriage and should do so for the “stability of society,” reports the Tribune.

Historical Context: Past attempts to legislate behavior

American history, however, has shown that attempts to legislate social behaviors, such as marriage, don’t always work. The government instituted prohibition laws in 1920, banning the sale and consumption of alcohol in the hopes of reducing crime and improving American morals.

But the plan backfired. Crime only increased, because law enforcement didn’t have the resources or the commitment to enforce the prohibition laws. Furthermore, bootleggers and organized crime organizations were able to import and sell alcohol easily. Americans openly disregarded the law and some said prohibition damaged the government’s prestige. The law was eventually repealed.

Laws and other rules against mothers nursing in public is another example. Mothers have staged “nurse-ins” to protest states and private institutions that forbid nursing in public, openly disobeying those rules. ABC reported in 2005 that most states now protect breastfeeding mothers from public indecency laws.

Related Topic: The politics of same-sex marriage

Opponents of gay marriage often say they are concerned that legalizing gay marriage will detract from the sanctity of traditional marriage between a man and a woman, and have spoken out against decisions in California, Massachusetts and Connecticut to legalize the practice. Opponents celebrated when Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, passed in California in November.

However, gay rights advocates in several states are rededicating themselves to legalizing gay marriage in 2009. For instance, OutFront, Minnesota’s largest activist group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, is developing a long-term approach to the issue this year and is hoping to gain gradual grassroots support.

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