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La. aims to reduce divorce via marriage covenant law

BATON ROUGE, La. (BP)–It was not always easy to get a divorce in the United States — and Louisiana legislators have approved a first-of-its-kind measure to help couples return to that time.
A bill approved by the state legislature sets Louisiana up as the first state in the nation to establish an optional “covenant” marriage license that makes divorce more difficult. Gov. Mike Foster signed the bill July 15, to take effect Aug. 15 — and religious leaders have hailed it as a way to help stem the epidemic tide of divorce.
Statistics indicate the need for such creative action, they say. From 1970 to 1990, the number of divorces in the United States jumped by 34 percent as so-called “no-fault” laws went into effect across the nation.
As recent studies have begun to show some of the harsh effects of divorce on both adults and children, religious leaders especially have rallied to the cause of making divorce tougher to obtain. In some states, the approach has been to attack “no-fault” laws directly, seeking to repeal or tighten them. Those efforts have failed.
In Louisiana, however, the approach was not to attack “no-fault” laws but to allow couples a more binding choice for marriage.
“We’re trying to slow down the hemorrhaging of the American family through the no-fault divorce system,” explained Tony Perkins, 34, the Republican state representative from Baton Rouge who proposed the covenant marriage measure. Perkins, 34, is a father of two who has been married 11 years.
“We’ve created a culture of divorce by making it easy,” Perkins said. “The taboo associated with divorce is no longer there. Instead of the last resort, it’s now first. Instead of working through their problems, people tend to bail out of a marriage.”
The bill passed the Louisiana House of Representatives by a 98-0 vote and the Senate by a vote of 37-1, both on June 23.
For couples who choose the covenant marriage license — and they do not have to — bailing out would not be so easy. Under existing law, a Louisiana couple can obtain a divorce immediately when there is particular wrongdoing by a spouse or after six months of living separately and claiming irreconcilable differences. A covenant marriage license still would allow for divorce in cases of wrongdoing — but it would make it harder to obtain a divorce when there is no proof of wrongdoing. A couple would have to live separately for up to two years before obtaining a divorce in some cases.
Otherwise, the idea is to give the couple time to work on the marriage. Indeed, by opting for a covenant marriage license — and the bill provides for already-married couples to make a decision to do so as well — a couple commits to take “all reasonable efforts to preserve our marriage, including marital counseling” if difficulties arise.
Under the covenant marriage, conditions for divorce, in addition to the two-year separation, would include adultery; imprisonment for a felony; abandoning the home for at least one year; or physically or sexually abusing a spouse or child.
Also under the law, premarital counseling from a clergy member or other counselor is required that would review the restrictions of the covenant.
Early reaction has been positive. “I’ll welcome anything that will strengthen marriage at the front end,” Episcopal Bishop James Brown of the Diocese of Louisiana said. “So many people today marry with no real commitment to make it work.”
Indeed, Brown said he is leaning to requiring all people married in an Episcopal church in his diocese to obtain a covenant marriage license. He also said he plans to meet with the bishop of the western diocese in Louisiana and see if they can draft a policy to apply to the entire state.
A Roman Catholic spokesperson indicated Louisiana bishops also plan to work out a policy. “Will we in our Catholic ceremony accept both or only the covenant marriage license?” asked Thomas Rodi, chancellor of the Archdiocese of New Orleans in a Times-Picayune news article.
“I’m not sure. (But:) Why would couples marrying in the Catholic Church not want to get a covenant license?”
Jon Walker, editor of the Baptist Sunday School Board’s Home Life magazine, stated, “Certainly anything that reduces the divorce rate is a positive move, and I applaud the Louisiana legislature for its interest in keeping marriages together. Divorce was first permitted because of the hardness of the human heart, and that hardness led to the lax divorce laws found throughout the United States. In fact, we have the highest divorce rate of any industrialized nation; so I hope this positive move toward strengthening marriages in the Bayou state flows across the country.”
Walker voiced caution, however, over “the language of the Louisiana legislation that implies a couple can reduce their marriage to a contract simply by opting for a lesser legal commitment.”
“I understand that, in practice, many couples are already doing that; but I’m bothered by the sense that we may be reinforcing the modern myth that marriage is nothing more than a contract,” Walker said. “All marriages are a covenant regardless of whether or not the participants choose to view them that way. Reducing the divorce rate in this country will only be achieved when we return to a high view of marriage — which is a promise of lifelong commitment between two people.”

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  • Lacy Thompson