Most Kansans recognize the importance of a stable, two-parent home in a child’s life, and the value to the state and society of having as many happily married couples as possible. But Gov. Sam Brownback is inviting debate — and perhaps trouble — by pushing marriage, especially with the help of faith-based tools and federal funds.
At the very least, he and Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Rob Siedlecki need to do a better job of explaining what they’re up to.
Siedlecki has talked about compiling data, doing surveys and using SRS staff and other resources to promote the benefits of marriage. “The governor wants us to create a national model,” Siedlecki has said.
But so far, they have created a lot of worry — including that they want to pressure some people into marrying while stranding others in abusive marriages and, of course, ensuring that same-sex couples have no opportunity to marry at all.
The bad first impression started in April, when Brownback and Siedlecki brought some national advocates to Topeka for a brainstorming session. It took a Kansas Open Records Act request and several months to reveal the $13,000 cost and the guest list, including attendees who variously have declared that polygamy better aligns with core values than does same-sex marriage, that poor women should marry their way out of poverty, and that Kansas should prohibit no-fault divorce without proof of physical abuse or adultery and also allow judges to reward the spouse opposing a divorce with up to 66 percent of child visitation and 100 percent of family assets.
And it seems highly hypocritical and contradictory for the Brownback administration to be applying for $6.6 million in federal funding to promote marriage after having rejected $31.5 million in federal funds related to health care reform because, as the governor said at the time, “every state should be preparing for fewer federal resources.”
Then there is the way SRS wants to use the marriage money — to send unwed parents to voluntary counseling with either secular or faith-based counselors and, should they decide to marry, cover the $85.50 cost of a marriage license. Siedlecki, who worked in President Bush’s faith-based programs , wants to funnel tax money to religious groups via vouchers. That could allow the groups to proselytize in the course of their work, which raises constitutional concerns. Plus, would free counseling sessions and a complimentary license really entice people to marry?
Siedlecki told The Eagle editorial board last week that the goal isn’t marriage but “healthy marriage,” and apologized for the clumsy handling of the closed-door April meeting (while saying he can’t be responsible for everything its participants have said in the past). He also argued that even if couples decide not to marry, counseling sessions about relationships and finances still could benefit them.
But the efforts to promote marriage will demand better explanation going forward — especially at a time when SRS is cutting $42 million from its budget and the public mood is that government should butt out of people’s private lives.