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Jennifer Kohnke, Tribune Media Services

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary referred to “the late” Judge Noah Rosenbloom. The judge is alive and well in New Ulm.

Straight talk about the marriage commitment

  • Article by: ROBERT FRANKLIN
  • February 24, 2012 - 1:03 PM

In April 1983, former Star Tribune reporter Eric Black began an article this way:

"As a private citizen, Noah Rosenbloom of New Ulm, Minn., disapproves of unmarried couples living together. As a private citizen, he can only cluck his tongue.

"But as District Judge Noah Rosenbloom, he can do something about it.

"When Rosenbloom puts a defendant on probation and learns that the person lives with a girlfriend or boyfriend, he gives the probationer three choices: Get married, move out, or go to jail."

Judge Rosenbloom comes to mind amid this year's campaign to vote present law -- defining marriage as between one man and one woman -- into the state Constitution, aimed at stopping courts or future legislatures from legalizing gay marriages.

Today, as 29 years ago, it isn't gays and lesbians who threaten marriage as an institution.

Look at the statistics: Half of U.S. marriages end in divorce. About 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage, more than half among mothers under 30.

For the first time, the 2010 census found that fewer than half of U.S. households include a married couple. About 7.5 million opposite-gender couples live together unwed, up 50 percent in a decade.

The focus on defining marriage in the face of all this suggests that the constitutional amendment isn't so much about preserving the institution as it is a revolt against a growing acceptance of gays and lesbians in American culture (and, cynics might say, about getting out the social-conservative vote).

It's like: "The house is on fire! Call an architect!"

Sincere defenders of marriage might want to call on the spirit of Judge Rosenbloom instead and harness their legislative zeal to enact his approach into law. Not just for court probationers, but for everybody.

It shouldn't take 3 a.m. police raids to identify cohabitating heterosexuals, round them up and enforce Noah's Choice: Get married, live apart or go to jail.

Imagine how else the full force of the law and the Constitution could "protect" marriage:

• Make it illegal (or unconstitutional?) to rent or sell housing to unwed heterosexual couples.

• Outlaw divorce. Or at least make it more difficult to abandon a marriage, by narrowing the grounds for divorce, raising fees or (as bills now actually before the Legislature would do) require a waiting period or counseling when minor children are involved.

• Reinstitute prosecution of the long-neglected fornication law against sex between a man and an unmarried woman. Judge Rosenbloom, back in the day, concluded that cohabiting assumes a violation of that law.

• Those who contend that the purpose of marriage is primarily (or solely) to produce children could advocate premarital fertility tests for couples of child-bearing age. Flunk the test, and you don't get a marriage license unless you agree to acquire children by adoption or some other method.

One critic called Rosenbloom "a different kind of Cupid" -- sporting a black robe and a shotgun. Noah's Choice was effective, however.

In 20 years on the bench, with three or four such cases a year, he told the newspaper, "in every instance where it's come up, the people sooner or later, and usually without much delay ... get married. It's a kind of a catalyst."

Few of these ideas to enforce duty over love (or lust) are likely to become law. Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, an opponent of the marriage amendment, got no support last year when she advocated outlawing divorce, to make the point that "none of us want people to tell us what to do with our marriages [or] who we can love and who we can marry."

That may be true. Battles over government control of personal choices continue, but America has largely moved beyond publicly demonizing divorce, cohabitation and "illegitimate" children, just as it is moving gradually, haltingly toward ending discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Nevertheless, creative minds could fashion less-draconian legislation to promote marriage. Perhaps a substantial marriage "signing bonus" to be paid over a decade, as long as a couple stays wed.

Perhaps mandatory counseling with the birth of a child outside of marriage. Perhaps reinforced school instruction about the benefits, responsibilities and challenges of marriage.

Marriage is, after all, a wonderful institution, its legal benefits aside. At best, it fosters love, commitment, companionship and, for many of us, the joy of children.

It's good public policy, too, promoting family stability, health, child well-being, educational achievement, career advancement and economic self-sufficiency.

So it seems ironic that there's so much emotional debate about several hundred thousand gay and lesbian couples who want to get married but can't -- and so little about millions upon millions of straight couples who, by traditional standards, should get married (or stay married) but don't.

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Robert Franklin is a retired Star Tribune reporter and editor.

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