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Church holds mass wedding ceremony in support of La. covenant marriage law

RUSTON, La. (BP)–It was probably one of the biggest wedding ceremonies ever held in Louisiana, and it didn’t have to be done.
Twenty-nine couples renewed their wedding vows simultaneously at First Baptist Church, Ruston, La., on June 28 in support of the covenant marriage law passed by the Louisiana legislature.
Covenant marriages are unions requiring premarital counseling and tough grounds for divorce. Provisions exist for people who are already married — such as those who participated in the June 28 ceremony — to willingly enter into a covenant marriage under the law.
The ceremony was a culmination of messages presented between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day about marriage and the family, said David Leavell, pastor of the Ruston church.
The covenant marriage law is an effort to cut down on divorce, Leavell said. Holding such a ceremony “is a testimony to the community and the world that marriage is a lifelong commitment.”
But gathering 29 couples together to renew their vows was not just ceremonial, Leavell said, emphasizing none of the couples had to participate. Their new contract now legally binds them to go through a restrictive process should they ever in the future consider divorce.
Prior to the June 28 ceremony, each couple had to meet with the local clerk of court to upgrade their existing marriage license to include the covenant marriage provisions and sign a commitment to work together to overcome their differences should they ever consider divorce.
In addition, according to the law, each couple — no matter how long they already had been married — had to go through three hours of marriage counseling before they were allowed to sign the covenant.
To get out of a covenant marriage, a spouse would have to prove physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, adultery or the like. Even then, in most cases, there would have to be a legal separation lasting one year to 18 months, depending on whether children would be involved.
No-fault laws, which exist in every state, do not require proof of wrongdoing and allow divorce on the grounds that the marriage simply has broken down. Conventional marriages, complete with the freedom to obtain no-fault divorce, are still available in Louisiana.
No-fault laws, which began in California in the 1960s, Leavell said, are one of the major factors undermining the existence of the family today.
“Marriage is the building block of our society,” Leavell said. “Despite the amount of negative publicity the Louisiana legislature often receives for its work, they have put a priority on one of the most fundamental units of society, and that’s the family.”
Louisiana’s covenant marriage law was brought to the attention of the Southern Baptist Convention by Michael Claunch of Slidell, La., at the June 9-11 annual meeting in Salt Lake City. Claunch is pastor of First Baptist Church, Slidell, La., and former president of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. His resolution, approved unanimously by the SBC, endorsed efforts by other states to pass covenant marriage laws, not only making it harder for couples to get divorced, but also to be married in the first place.
The wedding ceremony at First Baptist, Ruston, has garnered a great deal of attention, not only in Louisiana, but in other states as well, from an article by a local newsperson posted by the Associated Press. The story has appeared in numerous city newspapers across the country and in many Louisiana publications.
In addition, a national television network has contacted Leavell about broadcasting a future ceremony.
Leavell is quick to add that the idea to have such a commitment ceremony was to strengthen the family, not to gain publicity, although he is happy for the positive feedback the event has produced.
“We were seeking to do something positive,” Leavell said. “We want to make the family a place of blessing, not a burden.”
Due to the enormously positive response throughout the Ruston community to the first covenant marriage service for couples married under the old law, Leavell hopes to coordinate another commitment service Aug. 22. So far, more than 100 married couples have expressed interest in participating. The multi-denominational service may be big enough to be held in the local civic center, Leavell said.
Leavell is the son of Landrum Leavell II, president emeritus of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He became pastor of First Baptist Church, Ruston, La., in January 1998. A graduate of New Orleans Seminary with the master of divinity and doctor of philosophy degrees, specializing in evangelism, he previously was pastor of First Baptist Church, Hobart, Okla., and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Bogalusa, La. He and his wife, the former Vicki Harrell of Columbia, S.C., also participated in the June 28 ceremony.

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