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‘Strong Marriages’ campaign begun in Fla.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (BP)–The man who led the successful effort to amend Florida’s constitution last year to protect traditional marriage says it’s now time for pastors, churches and individual Christians to examine their own marriages, asking “hard questions” about the Sunshine State’s high divorce rate.

John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Policy Council, in announcing a “Strong Marriages Florida” campaign, said the initiative will seek a 10 percent reduction in the state’s divorce rate, saving taxpayers $100 million per year.

Other goals of the campaign (on the Web at www.Yes2Marriage.org) are to increase the number of couples receiving premarital counseling, strengthening existing marriages and creating community awareness that celebrates marriage.

Florida leads the nation in the number of divorces, according to provisional data in the National Vital Statistics Reports for 2007 from the Centers for Disease Control, which includes data for all but California and five other “nonreporting” states. After Florida’s 86,387 divorces in 2007, Texas came next with 79,469 reported in the CDC data.

Although the Strong Marriages Florida campaign ultimately will seek certain public policy changes — including modifying “no-fault” divorce — Stemberger said it first will focus on what churches can do to positively impact marriage.

According to Stemberger, in 1969 California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law, which every state quickly followed, with the exception of New York.

“No-fault divorce has been a sociological disaster,” Stemberger said during a Feb. 3 news conference in Tallahassee. “It is responsible for more impoverished single mothers, more irresponsible dads taking off whenever they want, more broken families and destroyed children’s lives.”

People can “get out of marriage easier than you can get out of a credit card,” Stemberger said. “Something’s not right with that when marriage is the primary socializing institution.”

With a higher divorce rate than more populated states, Stemberger said Florida’s 86,000-plus divorces per year come at great cost to families as well as society.

“Family fragmentation resulting from divorce and unwed childbearing has enormous social costs — human costs and financial costs,” he said. “We have social costs involved with children and the effects upon them, business costs — lowered productivity, lowered profits — and the staggering burden upon taxpayers and revenues in the state.”

Stemberger cited a 2008 study released by Institute for American Values and other organizations that found Florida spends $1.9 billion per year in response to divorce, fragmented families and unstable marriages. The cost to the nation is at least $112 billion annually, according to the study.

Two marriage advocates joined Stemberger in the news conference, Richard Albertson and Mike McManus.

Albertson, of Tallahassee-based Live the Life Ministries, has been the point person in creating a community marriage policy adopted by 70 area churches from various denominations. The churches have banded together to require certain premarital counseling practices and other steps for prospective spouses.

In the decade since the creation of the policy, divorce has dropped nearly 30 percent in Leon County, according to Albertson, with the number of divorces falling below 1,000 in 2007 for the first time in 20 years.

“People from all walks of life across the country are coming together in a growing marriage movement,” Albertson said. “They are turning the tide in dozens of cities … proving that if we act, if we can work together, we can restore marriage as the treasured institution that it once was.”

Syndicated columnist Mike McManus, a national leader in the marriage movement, said a “left hand, right hand punch” of pastoral strategy and public policy strategy is needed to reverse divorce in America.

Author of “Marriage Savers” and other books about marriage and divorce, McManus has helped 200-plus cities create community marriage policies like the one used in Tallahassee. In those cities, divorce rates drop an average of 17 percent, according to McManus, with some cities, like Austin, Texas, and Kansas City, Kan., dropping 50 percent.

“It’s important that both culture and policy work in cooperation to get the best results for protecting children and families,” McManus said.

Although Stemberger did not offer specific legislation he would like the Florida legislature to pass, McManus said the types of public policy changes that could help reverse divorce trends include waiting periods before granting divorces, increasing premarital education hours, requiring couples to take premarital inventories, and modification of no fault divorce laws to require mutual consent in marriages with minor children, with certain exceptions.

Also speaking at the news conference to offer support for Strong Marriages Florida were Bill Bunkley, legislative consultant for the Florida Baptist Convention, and Mike McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference.

“We are excited about anything that strengthens the family. We’re excited about anything that helps keep our families together,” said Bunkley, noting the state convention is still evaluating the overall package.

Stemberger said his group would like every church in Florida to have “Fireproof,” the 2008 pro-marriage movie produced by a Georgia Baptist church, which starred actor Kirk Cameron.

He said FFPC hopes to help start 12 community marriage organizations across the state in the next three years.

“We don’t have any more money to throw at problems…. We have to look at bold solutions to difficult problems and ask the public lawmakers in addition to public leaders and pastors to step up to the plate and really look at this issue seriously and address it,” Stemberger said.
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper (www.floridabaptistwitness.com).

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