Politics & Policy

Marriages of Convenience

What a military fraud case tells us about the future of marriage.

Defenders of marriage can claim a victory from last week’s election: voters resoundingly supported the traditional definition of marriage as one man, one woman in all eleven states that had the question on the ballot. But the issues won’t necessarily go away just because the voters have spoken. Judicial activism is the long-term strategy of gay activists. We may still see courts order states to recognize same-sex couples as married on the same terms as heterosexual couples. And if we do, then mind-reeling possibilities for unions of convenience will present themselves.

Stanley Kurtz, God bless him, has been trying to tell us this for a long time Non-involved pairs of people will choose to call themselves “married” just to obtain government or insurance benefits. Some gay activists dismiss Kurtz’s analysis as hysterical fear-mongering. Others, such as NYU queer studies professor Lisa Duggan embrace the outcome as desirable, since only the recalcitrance of the capitalist establishment to enact national health insurance prevents people from getting all the benefits they are morally entitled to. But a case in San Diego shows just how right Stanley Kurtz is: Society needs for marriage to have well-defined boundaries.

A woman sailor, Judy Ann Patterson, looked around for a man she could marry to qualify for the housing subsidy that the military pays for married couples. A friend introduced her to civilian Jason Huff. Two weeks later they got married and Patterson filed for the allowance, claiming that Huff lived in San Francisco. She picked San Francisco because the Bay Area has the highest housing benefits in the military. She also qualified for cost-of-living adjustments and extra benefits because her spouse lived in a different city. All totaled, she got an extra $2,600 per month, which added up to some $41,000 over the 16 months the scam operated.

Why was it a scam? The couple acknowledged that they never intended to live together as husband and wife. The whole point of the union was to obtain military housing benefits. Each month, Patterson sent her “husband” $500 and made a $300 payment on a truck in exchange for his going through the motions of being married.

Naturally, the military took a dim view of this fake marriage. Patterson was sentenced to 30 months in prison, a $4,800 fine, forfeiture of all pay, reduction in rank to seaman recruit, and a bad-conduct discharge. According to Navy Prosecutor Charles Olcutt, “Our military budget would be brought to its knees if every sailor thought they should get an extra $43,000 every year and a half.” He said that housing-allowance fraud is a “large and growing crime.”

Now, what exactly does this have to do with gay marriage? Two things: one retrospective, one forward-looking.

Retrospectively, we can see that loosening the definition of marriage was a major contributor to this kind of crime. Just ask yourself this: If Patterson and Huff had known that they could only obtain a divorce on grounds of adultery or domestic violence, would they have been more or less likely to contract this marriage? If couples had to have a two-year waiting period for a divorce to be finalized, would increased housing benefits seem like an adequate reason to get married? Marriage used to mean, “one to a customer for life.” Now it means, “I stay married for as long as I feel like it.” There can be no doubt that the easy availability of divorce contributed to making this kind of fraud possible.

Now look forward: Suppose gay marriage becomes legally accepted. The military will have to acknowledge gay unions and pay spousal benefits for gay couples. How will the military be able to determine a “legitimate” gay union, from a couple of buddies who decide it is cost-effective to call themselves a couple? Is the military seriously going to make an inquiry as to whether the two men or two women in question are really sexual partners or just pals seeking benefits? Do we really want the military to make such inquiries?

Acknowledging gay unions as the equivalent of marriage will create two unattractive options for the military. The first is to simply accept any pair of people as married who claim to be married; Uncle Sam will pay all of their spousal benefits. The second is to ask a lot of questions to determine whether the couple is a real couple or a pair of guys or gals who intend to break up after their tour of duty is over. The first option is expensive, the second is offensive.

There is another possible approach: Rather than further loosening the definition of marriage, how about tightening it? People seem to think that having any restrictions on divorce amounts to absolute prohibition of divorce. Women will be forced to live with abusive men, or remain trapped in loveless marriages.

So let’s be clear: People could get divorced for cause, usually adultery or cruelty, even in the darkest days of the dreaded 1950s. Our modern innovation of “no-fault” divorce is really unilateral divorce. If one person wants a divorce, the marriage ends, regardless of the other person’s wishes. We have no idea how many reluctantly divorced people are walking around our society, but no doubt there are a quite a few. People who want to keep working on the marriage–people who want to keep the vows they made–these are the people who are penalized by the current system. Tell me again how this makes us all freer and happier?

Gay activists never tire of telling us that straight people have already damaged marriage by their easy acceptance of divorce. This is absolutely correct. However, the advocates of gay marriage seem to think the current divorce regime is a done deal, cast in social stone, with no possibility of repeal or even alteration. I don’t agree. Rolling back unilateral divorce is a key component to restoring the culture of marriage.

Instead of divorce on demand, how about divorce for cause? We would have a lot fewer housing-subsidy-fraud cases in our military. And, I bet, we would have much less political demand for gay marriage.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work and 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage.


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