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Criminally Unfaithful? By: Chris Weinkopf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, June 25, 1999

FOR AN IMMIGRANT without financial backers, campaign experience, or an established organization to provide support, Laura Onate Palacios of Montebello, California, has been surprisingly successful in her first political venture. Her crusade has caught the attention and ire of talk-radio listeners, and it has made its way into small-town newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, and the AP Wire. In a state that routinely confronts controversial issues—affirmative action, bilingual education, medical marijuana, etc.—via referendum, Mrs. Palacios has found one that cuts even deeper: adultery.

A remarried divorcée and real-estate agent, Mrs. Palacios is tired of watching infidelity destroy lives and families. She resents that, under California’s no-fault divorce laws, courts treat faithful and cheating spouses no differently. Her proposed solution is a ban on extramarital affairs. Judges could force violators to pay damages, sentence them to jail, or demand a public apology. If the initiative makes the ballot and wins, it could become law by January, 2001—when, according to some reports, the nation’s foremost philanderer plans to move to Hollywood. Since the President’s exploits helped inspire this legislation, it would only be fitting that he live under it.

His professional defenders would be aghast. Throughout the Clinton–Lewinsky saga, they routinely ignored the questions of perjury and obstruction of justice, focusing instead on the "it’s just about sex" argument—as if adultery itself were unimportant. Their reasoning is that what a man does in his own bedroom (or, in the study adjacent to the Oval Office), so long as he harms no one else, is his own business. But infidelity is hardly a victimless crime. If hearing an off-color joke entitles one to damages for "emotional suffering," it’s hard to see why broken wedding vows would not. Likewise, it’s not unreasonable to think that the state would enforce the terms of its marriage licenses as vigorously as it does its hunting permits.

It’s true that implementing a ban on adultery would be problematic, maybe even unfeasible. While it would provide restitution to victims, it would probably do little to deter infidelity—breaking the law is small potatoes after breaking a covenant. Such practical objections are valid, but they do not explain the visceral, negative reaction talk-radio callers, Clinton backers, and civil libertarians have to the idea. Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo told the Associated Press that "It doesn't seem to me to conform to the main tenet of Californians' attitude, which is a kind of openness, sense of tolerance, and acceptance of lifestyles."

Really? In a 1997 Gallup survey, 79 percent of those polled said that "it is always wrong for a married person to have sexual relations with someone other than their marriage partner," with eleven percent responding that it is "almost always" wrong. Only six percent claimed that it is "sometimes" wrong, and three percent answered that it is "not wrong at all." Few Americans, however, are willing to attach any sort of punishment to their disapproval. During the impeachment proceedings, a solid majority of the public forgave President Clinton for lying to conceal a lie. Two years ago, when the Air Force threatened to slap Lieutenant Kelly Flinn with a court-martial for sleeping with a fellow enlisted woman’s husband, the media came to her support. Even Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican, quipped that the Air Force needed to "get real," and that the Pentagon was "not in touch with reality."

Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Southern California, aptly summed up the conventional wisdom when he told the L.A. Times that "there’s a widespread sentiment that adultery is immoral, but that it is not the appropriate focus of the law." His words echo the old ACLU mantra, that government must not "legislate morality." Taking that dictum literally, of course, means that government must not legislate at all—all laws, whether prohibiting theft, protecting the environment, or mandating a minimum wage, rest on one moral conviction or another. Good governments refrain from intruding on truly personal, private behavior, but not when others’ rights are at stake.

An adultery-ban ballot initiative would, if nothing else, make for an interesting campaign. It would separate the politicians who are sincere about their family-values rhetoric from the posers. Feminists, because of their commitment to the sexual revolution, would have to side with lecherous husbands over scorned wives—putting the final nail in the coffin of their credibility. To put the question on the ballot, Laura Onate Palacios, with a few volunteers, but no resources or organization, would need to gather 419,250 signatures in five months. That’s a daunting task, but anything’s possible, and Californians might just rally behind her cause—especially if enacting the ban keeps Bill Clinton out of town.

Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com.

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