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Vow of silence?

Critics say churches have been too slow to take advantage of state covenant-marriage laws

Sharon Samuel's 15-year marriage had deteriorated into daily spats, and only one thing stopped her from leaving-her "covenant marriage." In 1998, she and her husband, Guy, joined 30 couples at the First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, La., and signed legal documents allowing divorce only after an 18-month separation period and counseling. Under a new state law allowing married couples to choose higher-commitment marriage licenses, the Samuels became one of the nation's first couples to forgo the right to a no-fault divorce.

One year later, Mrs. Samuel felt trapped: "I was angry that I had signed the covenant marriage because I was so tired of all the conflict." But she found new hope while attending required counseling sessions with a Christian therapist recommended by her pastor: "I was looking for justification, but what I found was God's plan for marriage and God's hope for reconciliation." Required separation time also allowed Mr. and Mrs. Samuel to see the devastating effects divorce would have on their 5- and 11-year-old children.

Six months after separating-on the same weekend they would have obtained a divorce with a conventional marriage license-the couple reunited. "Covenant marriage didn't save our marriage," said Mrs. Samuel. "But God's work on our heart did. The covenant marriage just provided the time for that to happen." She and her husband renewed their covenant marriage last February.

Sadly, most couples never get that time. The number of U.S. divorces has quadrupled since the advent of 1970s no-fault divorce laws that waived waiting periods and proof of adultery. Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics reports show that four Bible Belt states (Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee) have divorce rates roughly 50 percent above the national average. Arkansas and Oklahoma topped the charts in 1998 with roughly six divorces per every thousand people. (Nationally, there are about 4.2 divorces per thousand people.)

Embarrassed, Southern governors have promoted covenant marriage as the politically safe, "pro-choice" antidote. Declaring a state of "marital emergency," Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee signed legislation making Arkansas the third state (after Arizona) to offer covenant marriage licenses. "People should have the option of making their marriage vow even stronger," he said. Similar proposals passed at least one house in the Oklahoma and Texas legislatures.

But skeptics say choose-your-own-marriage laws do little without church cooperation. Take Louisiana, for instance. Although 75 percent of the state's newlyweds married in churches last year, only 4 percent chose covenant marriage. A Gallup poll revealed that fewer than a third of state residents even knew about the option. Michael McManus, founder of Marriage Savers, a nonprofit group that trains churches on how to offer premarital counseling and marriage mentoring programs, wonders why so many pastors are silent: "Do 96 percent of couples really want marriage contracts written in disappearing ink?"

Mr. McManus notes that Protestant pastors were absent during testimony on behalf of a covenant marriage law defeated in Maryland. Pastors were also a no-show in the Oklahoma legislature this summer when a covenant marriage bill died in the Senate. "We did not go out there and lobby and fight for this bill," acknowledged Anthony Jordan, who represents the state's largest religious denomination as head of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. His priority is preventative premarital education: "I am not opposed to the law, but first we must see a change in people's hearts."

Rep. Tony Perkins, sponsor of the Louisiana covenant marriage law, argues that both offensive and defensive strategies are necessary to stem divorce: "The church has to be on the front lines of the issue of restoring family, but you've also got to have laws to back those efforts up." As evidence, he points to Baton Rouge where some 30 churches signed a Marriage Savers "Community Marriage Policy" agreeing that their ministers will marry only couples who agree to covenant marriages and take six months of premarital counseling. Since adopting the policy two years ago, First Presbyterian (the Samuels' church) has witnessed only three divorces out of 800 church couples.

But church cooperation has also spurred drastic results in states that lack covenant marriage laws. In a two-county area near Kansas City, Kan., some 50 churches signed a community agreement in 1997, agreeing to require extensive premarital counseling before marrying couples. Over the last four years, divorce rates in those counties plunged 44 percent. Inspired by that success, Oklahoma's Mr. Jordan has forged similar agreements between state religious leaders. So far, 550 churches and synagogues have joined the effort.

So is state legislation still necessary? Sharon Samuel says yes: "The waiting period required by covenant marriage was critical for us-without that we would have probably divorced before working through all the pain and anger."

Candi Cushman

Candi Cushman