Best look inward before judging others

Living in a democracy is hard on people who want to control others.

A county clerk in Kentucky drew international attention in 2015 when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She claimed God was on her side as she judged them ineligible. Some people said those were strange words from a woman whose first three marriages ended in divorce.

That’s my favorite part of the story. If you go around judging free people, your own history is up for inspection. And all of us can be embarrassed by our past. Americans have many different views about marriage, but the clerk’s main mistake was in trying to use government and God to control free people.

I wondered whether she was willing to do background checks on all couples who applied for marriage certificates in her office. Take my friend, Jean, for example, and her Kentucky family. When I asked who her father was, she gave a weird answer: “That’s a loaded question.”

She always thought her mom’s first husband was her biological dad. He died at 29, three months before Jean was born.

Jean’s mom died two years ago when Jean was 53. One year earlier, during her battle with terminal cancer, Mom told Jean that husband No. 1 maybe wasn’t Jean’s “bio dad.” She said there was a 50/50 chance that either husband No. 1 or a forest ranger named Rob was.

Jean pretended not to care.

Mom amended, saying, “Well, it could be a 75 percent chance that Ranger Rob is your father.”

Jean pressed for a little more precision, and Mom said it probably was the ranger.

“What do you mean?” Jean asked. “Mom, are you talking 100 percent?” Mom said she was. Jean and her sister were shocked. The girls had always assumed they had the same daddy – husband No. 1 – and that they were whole sisters, not half.

Mom was six months pregnant with Jean when husband No. 1 died. She had guarded this intrigue from the girls for their entire lives, fraudulently collecting survivor’s benefits on Jean’s behalf for 18 of those years.

Mom didn’t marry Ranger Rob. She married husband No. 2, and they divorced after a few years. Two years later, she married husband No. 3 and stayed with him for 13 years. So far, the county courthouse records showed that Mom had three marriages, had widowed once and had divorced twice.

Then she lived with John for three years before he became husband No. 4. Eighteen years after the wedding, they divorced. Three years later, she met husband No. 5, whom she married within a month and divorced within two years.

That’s five marriages and four divorces.

Yesterday, I attended a wedding reception to honor a friend’s fifth marriage. While I was there, I had a delightful conversation with a homosexual relative of mine and his partner. They know I don’t support same-sex relationships, but it didn’t get in our way. I made sure they both knew how much I enjoy our friendship. I also made sure my newly married friend knew how much I appreciated being part of his celebration.

If you really want to control who can get married, you could require background checks for anybody applying for a marriage certificate.

Just think of all the people who would flunk out.

Jean describes the man whom she called Dad at home – husband No. 3 – as a very mean person. She could’ve had a relationship with her bio dad if she had known about him.

She wonders about him as she says, “Maybe he would’ve loved me.”

It’s not easy living in the free world.

Max T. Russell of New Palestine writes for the international business intelligence and nonprofit communities.