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'Covenant Marriage' Movement Making Little Headway in U.S.

Lifestyle: Louisiana pioneered law limiting couples' ability to divorce. The move has stimulated debate but little imitation.


NEW YORK — Across America, it is easy to find politicians and civic leaders decrying the prevalence and social cost of divorce. It is far harder to find consensus about what, if anything, policymakers should do in response.

An array of proposals has reached legislative hearing rooms; few of substance have been enacted.

No state has followed Florida's example in requiring a marriage-education curriculum for public high school students. Only one state, Arizona, has joined pioneering Louisiana in approving covenant marriages, in which couples voluntarily impose limits on their ability to divorce.

Despite the setbacks, including rebuffs of covenant-marriage bills in more than 20 legislatures, supporters of the so-called Marriage Movement are encouraged.

"At least marriage is back on the agenda," said Alan Hawkins, a professor of family sciences at Brigham Young University. "I find that amazing."

Hawkins supports covenant marriage and several other proposals created to discourage divorce, but he is not surprised at the wary reaction of many legislators.

"We're treading on very sensitive ground," he said. "We're just surfacing from a generation of living in a culture of divorce and questioning whether it was everything we hoped it would be. It's a bigger step from questioning, and realizing there are real problems, to saying we ought to do something about the problems."

Few Choose the Option

The backers of Louisiana's covenant-marriage law hoped they were sending a message to the rest of the country when they pushed their bill through to passage in 1997. It was touted as the first substantive move in two centuries to make divorce harder rather than easier.

In essence, covenant marriage gives couples the option of spurning no-fault divorce; they sign binding contracts that require premarital counseling and permit divorce only in cases of abuse, abandonment, adultery, imprisonment of a spouse or a lengthy separation.

So far, however, fewer than 5% of Louisiana couples are choosing covenant marriage. And Arizona, the only other state to try covenant marriage, opted for a weaker law that allows participating couples to divorce relatively easily if there is mutual consent.

Tony Perkins, the state representative who sponsored Louisiana's law, admits the response of other states has been discouraging. He said the proposal had failed in some seemingly sympathetic legislatures--Texas and Oklahoma, for example--because of opposition by key committee chairmen who were divorce lawyers.

If covenant marriage were to spread, Perkins said, "It would be a blow to the divorce industry."

Perkins predicted at least a few other states eventually would try covenant marriage, and he credited his bill with fueling a national discussion of marriage and divorce.

The Rev. Russ Stevenson, minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, La., says religious leaders in Louisiana could be much more active in promoting covenant marriages.

At his church, Stevenson said, couples planning to wed were at first simply advised that covenant marriage was an option.

"They would look at each other with stars in their eyes and say, 'Honey, we don't really need that, do we?' " Stevenson said. "When you are in the full flush of love, preparing to get married, you are not thinking about divorce."

Now Stevenson takes a firmer stance.

"We really ask couples to have a covenant marriage, and if they object, we try to talk them into it," he said. "We think it's in their best interest."

Mike Johnson, a Baton Rouge lawyer, and his wife, Kelly, entered a covenant marriage in 1999. He has been trying since then to encourage friends to follow suit.

"In my generation, all we've ever known is the no-fault scheme, and any deviation from that seems like a radical move," said Johnson, 28. "We've all been jaded by our parents' divorces.

"Because so few people have chosen covenant marriage in Louisiana, it seems like an unpopular idea," he said. "It's not unpopular--it's just unknown. Once the message is out there, a whole lot more people will choose it."

Joe Cook, director of the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, disagrees.

"It's a bad idea whose time should have never come," he said. "Fortunately, it looks like it won't catch on."

The ACLU has criticized the law for seeming to infringe on the separation of church and state. Many of the movement's staunchest backers are Christian conservatives, and the law offers a prominent role to clergy in premarital counseling.

The ACLU also is concerned that women who enter covenant marriages might have difficulty escaping from abusive relationships, even though the law specifies that domestic violence is among the grounds for breaking the covenant.

"They're trying to come up with a quick fix to a complex problem," Cook said. "If they want to help families, they can offer substance-abuse treatment, improve public education, ensure a living wage. . . . You just can't legislate a good marriage."

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