There is an axiom that Utah culture is only a decade, perhaps even only a few years, behind a broader American culture in decline. Last week, as the Utah House of Representatives debated the Dating Violence Protection Act, HB50, further evidence arose that perhaps this axiom is true.
The bill would extend legal protections, in cases of actual or threatened violence, protections already existing for people married and cohabitating, to people on dates. In the process, the bill creates legal standing for a "dating relationship." In fact, a good portion of the bill defines that relationship.
When the integrity of the law matches the integrity of what our laws were designed to uphold, the basis of law is personhood. In other words, a law prohibiting murder applies to every person. Laws that are just don't require the categorization of human beings — males, females, black, white, rich, poor — just laws require only personhood.
This American legal ideal has been perfected over the past two centuries. But the ideal has held: personhood is the basis of just laws. Personhood requires society to define what it means to be a human being. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unjustly that a black man was not fully a human being. The court wrongly defined personhood.
Of course, our laws have succeeded in defining personhood more than they have failed. Marriage and family, for instance, are two areas of the law where, since our nation's founding, we have properly upheld the ideal of personhood — meaning, our laws continue to recognize the inherent personhood in marriage and family and their important benefits to society.
But even those laws are losing their integrity. They have begun to backslide and mirror a former time when unjust laws recognized not personhood but our own selfish characterizations. Laws and culture attacking societal pillars of marriage and family remind us of perverse legalisms from times past when a few Americans thought they knew better than self-evident truth.
Enter the Dating Violence Protection Act. The House bill sponsor of HB50 argued as patently unfair the fact that Utah has legal protections against violence and abuse in married and cohabitation relationships but not in dating relationships. Sixty of her 74 House colleagues agreed.
When confronted with a sensible amendment to address an obvious foundational problem with HB50, the House sponsor's words of denunciation revealed Utah's growing slide away from legal precedent and societal wisdom. She replied, "I reject the notion that people date just so they can get married. People date for a variety of different reasons. I'm 43 years old. I'm not married. Does that mean I've just been a failure at dating?"
It's true that people date for a variety of reasons. It's also true for that same reason that we have not legislated dating and why there's no legal history to recognize dating as a relationship such as marriage. The sponsor's comparison of dating to cohabitation is accurate — but neither dating nor cohabitation is analogous to marriage.
Regardless of the House sponsor's characterization of dating, it's not a relationship. It's a process. To what end? Marriage. Or not. Just as there are differences between "nice" and "kind," there are substantive legal differences between "fair" and "just." In a dysfunctional culture, marriage, cohabitation and dating are perceived to have equal benefit to society. In reality, only marriage benefits society. Cohabitation is a sign of social breakdown, and dating is still only a process. HB50 might be fair, but it's not just.
Paul Mero is president of Sutherland Institute.