Virginia W. Newmyer's "By George, Here's a Real Royal Scandal" {op-ed, April 1} recalled the morganatic marriage of King George IV, then the Prince of Wales, to a young widow named Maria Fitzherbert. The marriage was null, the writer observed, on the two counts: the prince had failed to get the consent of his father, George III, and as heir to the throne of England he was barred from marrying a Catholic. Thus according to the law he was not married.

But was he really married? Is there a reality in marriage beyond the reach of law?

There's reason to think the answer is: Yes, marriage has an inner sanctum that the state dare not enter. The case of the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Fitzherbert illustrates this.

The Prince had pursued Maria Fitzherbert with a 42-page love letter into her refuge on the continent. He got his way. They married and made their home in the seaside town of Brighton.

But the desire to reign over the world's most powerful kingdom proved too strong. The future King George IV broke with Maria Fitzherbert and attempted a marriage of state with Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Caroline herself knew there was something amiss about that marriage, for when accused of adultery she quipped that the only adultery she had ever committed was with Mrs. Fitzherbert's husband.

To round out the story of George IV's marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, we might recall that at his death he was wearing a locket bearing her portrait, and made sure that it went with him to the grave.

Some things cannot be unmade by lawmakers, and one of them is a true bond between man and wife. The story of George IV and Mrs. Fitzherbert is not just a romantic story about royalty. This tale of a husband's lifelong devotion despite human weakness and despite human laws repeats itself countless times in every country. But it bears particularly on the United States, where the law panders to our weakness by making a mirage of marriage. We, like the Prince of Wales, can just walk away.

Consider: In the United States, the only contract that can be rendered null and void if one party simply wants out is the marriage contract.

This legal anomaly, the result of ''no-fault divorce,'' has constitutional implications. Article One, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution forbids any state to enact legislation ''impairing the Obligation of Contracts.''

On such a ground, one husband has appealed to the Supreme Court against the dissolution of his marriage under California's no-fault divorce law. James Sutherland claims California unconstitutionally wiped out his marriage contract without any evidence of misbehavior on his part.

In March the court decided not to hear Sutherland v. Sutherland. But Mr. Sutherland is appealing.

His point is that the Supreme Court itself ruled out no-fault divorce. For Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in Dartmouth College v. Woodward.

"When any state legislature shall pass an act annulling all marriage contracts, or allowing either party to annul it, without the consent of the other, it will be time ... to enquire whether such an act be constitutional."

But the California Court of Appeals ruled that the Supreme Court had reversed itself seven decades later, in finding that the marriage contract does not fall under the constitutional prohibition of impairment of contract. Why not? Because, the court of 1888 responded in Maynard v. Hill, it ''is more than a contract.''

The court of the 1990s, which has witnessed the decay of marriage both as a contract and as an institution, may take a dim view of that rationale. Our modern court has watched the nightmarish descent of discarded women and children into penury and may well ask why marriage is not a contract if it is ''more than a contract.''

No one would be hardy enough to prophesy here. But politicians of every stripe have been calling for the restoration of the family. Divorce has been getting a bad press, while social scientists have been documenting its damage. Americans have seen and felt too much of the pain of divorce to regard it as a simple remedy. They may be ready to regard it as a malady.

Whatever the court decides to do or not to do, there is an element in the divorce question that has thus far been ignored but that seems likely to come to the fore some day. It is the religious element.

Most marriages are solemnized before a minister of religion. Normally, certain requirements of the church or synagogue must be met before the wedding can take place. Moreover religion plays its role throughout the marriage. When the Prince of Wales asked Maria Fitzherbert to take him back, she obtained from the pope a declaration that their marriage was valid, and only then would she resume domestic life with him. (This lasted about a decade, which she described as the happiest years of her life, before his dissoluteness drove them apart again.)

For all the talk of separation of church and state, the two meet in marriage. Their interests intersect. Or so they do in principle, though no-fault divorce has in practice pulled them apart. This sets the stage for a drama whose denouement we can scarcely predict. For in the marriage contract, when the interests of church and state do not coincide, when in fact they collide, church and state themselves seem bound one day to collide also.

The writer is director of the Washington chapter of the Catholic League and teaches philosophy at the Catholic University of America.