It's been said that the family is the first Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Throughout history, marriage has emerged as the basic institution from which our legal and social fabric grows. Cultures and law long have recognized the influence of strong marriages on children, commerce and the community.

In a 4-3 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall said homosexual couples have a right to marriage under the state constitution, adding, 'Marriage is an evolving paradigm.'

This majority then demanded that the state Legislature follow its instructions. However, dissenting Justice Robert Cordy affirmed the state's interest in promoting stable families, arguing that 'that decision must be made by the Legislature, not the court.'

Some suggest that divorce already has changed marriage. No-fault divorce has influenced the length of some marriages. Many researchers believe it has even encouraged marital breakups.

Yet the actual definition of marriage remains intact. Even the divorce process recognizes the essential composition of husband and wife, father and mother, when custody is considered. Research shows that both Mom and Dad's influence on their children is irreplaceable.

In the past, prejudice prevented interracial couples from accessing marriage. But this was on the basis of race, not the definition of marriage. Minority groups all over the United States do not see this as the same consideration. Slavery or its lingering prejudices have never enjoyed universal support in history. Yet marriage enjoys timeless, universal support.

If we apply the civil rights argument, we then must include polygamy, group marriage and any other construct. Groups are ready to make this happen.

Any man or woman can access marriage as it is defined. Defending marriage doesn't change the concern all of us have for the safety and citizenship of all Oregonians.

In recent years, various jurisdictions charged with upholding state laws have applied their personal interpretation and called it civil disobedience. Under this view, any municipality could legalize prostitution and call it civil disobedience.

Multnomah County's decision this week ignores the intent of our state Constitution's framers. It is obvious that the law means to say that any male and female in Oregon can get married, provided they're 17. If we apply the county's logic consistently, Oregon could not rescind a marriage between a father and daughter, as one state recently did. A small group of politicians' arbitrary personal interpretation reigns supreme.

In recognition of marriage as the fundamental cultural institution, Congress joined President Clinton in 1996 to pass the Defense of Marriage Act. As President Bush recently stated, 'Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society.'

Ironically, some public officials and celebrities have claimed a moral premise for their defiance. Our laws extend from a transcendent source. Otherwise policy only boils down to who is the majority. There is a significant moral component at work here as with all our laws. These Judeo-Christian roots point us to the clear benefits of traditional marriage.

Marriage must be preserved. Congress and states should pass the Federal Marriage Amendment to rein in arbitrary court decisions. Oregon also should work to protect marriage laws from being diluted by other states' versions.

In the end, marriage is more than just a place to acquire benefits. In the words of columnist Maggie Gallagher: 'Marriage is not a private application for federal benefits. It is a shared public act, a social institution that depends on a common, shared culture of marriage.' As recognized throughout all time.

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