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Putting asunder

Gay-marriage initiatives aren't the only threat to preserving marriage.

When disbarred attorney Ralph Woods appeared in a North Carolina courtroom for his arraignment on fraud charges, U.S. Magistrate Judge Carl Horn asked Mr. Woods a question he didn't expect: Do you live alone? When Mr. Woods replied that he lived with a woman to whom he wasn't married, Judge Horn issued an order he didn't expect: If Mr. Woods wanted to post bond, he'd have to move out or get married.

Mr. Woods' fraud charges had nothing to do with his love life, but his extramarital living arrangements had everything to do with a North Carolina law that prohibits unmarried couples from living together. It's a 200-year-old law rarely enforced in other courtrooms, but Judge Horn takes it seriously. He has routinely imposed the condition on defendants whom he also requires to work and support their children. Soon after his hearing, Mr. Woods was a married man.

Judge Horn's enforcement of the cohabitation ban has drawn scorn from critics who call the law antiquated and discriminatory. (Only seven other states have laws banning cohabitation of unmarried couples.) North Carolina's state chapter of the ACLU has filed suit to have the ban declared unconstitutional. But Judge Horn is unapologetic: "These conditions are all in their [the defendants'] best interest," he told the Charlotte Observer. "My overall goal is to get them to live more disciplined, responsible lives."

Discipline and responsibility aren't buzzwords in the public marriage debate these days. Instead, the notion of gay marriage dominates public discourse as homosexuals press for civil recognition that threatens to inflict far-reaching consequences (see p. 31).

But as the gay-marriage crisis looms large, another massive marriage crisis churns beneath the surface and behind church doors. Tens of thousands of men and women will marry in the United States in June, the most popular month for weddings. The same month, tens of thousands of couples will also divorce. That trend will repeat itself for the rest of the year.

During a 10-month period in 2005, an estimated 1.8 million couples got married in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. During the same period, nearly 800,000 couples divorced. A total of more than 56.4 million married couples live together in the United States, according to the 2000 Census (compared with 595,000 homosexual couples). As many as 24 million of those married couples could end up divorced if the nation's divorce rate continues to hover between 35 percent and 45 percent.

Pollster George Barna released a study in 2004 putting the soaring divorce rate in context for Christians. The findings were disturbing: Born-again Christians are as likely to get divorced as non-Christians. Mr. Barna found the same divorce rate in both groups: 35 percent. Nearly one quarter of the Christians surveyed had been divorced two or more times. The study found that Christians are more likely to characterize divorce as a sin, but even those figures weren't encouraging: Only 25 percent of Christians in the survey said divorce without adultery is sinful.

That evangelical phenomenon is "an incredible indictment" and "completely inexcusable," according to Andreas Köstenberger, professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of God, Marriage, and Family. Mr. Köstenberger told WORLD that while it's important for Christians to oppose gay marriage "we also shouldn't lose track of the fact that so many of our Christian marriages are ending in divorce. . . . It certainly renders us vulnerable in the battle for the definition of marriage."

Mr. Köstenberger says the problems of gay marriage and divorce both grow from the same dark root: sin and a low view of marriage. The church's divorce rate equals that of the secular world, he adds, because the church has adopted a secular mindset full of "superficial remedies that don't deal with the deeper problems."

For example, most of the marriage resources in Christian bookstores are focused on "how-to lists and techniques.

. . . They're really indistinct from the secular world," says Mr. Köstenberger. Christians need a deeper understanding of biblical marriage and how it fits into the broader context of the Bible, he says, not just tips on better communication: "Liberalism is pervasive and it promotes the notion that we ought to make whatever choices are best for us as opposed to the biblical idea of sacrificial love."

Divorce and homosexuality aren't the only problems springing from a low view of marriage: By 12th grade, more than 60 percent of teenagers have had sex at least once, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Eighty-four out of every 1,000 girls ages 15-19 will become pregnant. The CDC estimates that 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases occur each year. Almost half the cases occur in people ages 15-24.

Even the culture's pervasive immodesty ultimately stems from a low view of marriage, according to Mr. Köstenberger, who notes it's nearly impossible to find modest, feminine clothing for his 13-year-old daughter: "All of these things are part of the larger problem."

A handful of government agencies have noted this larger problem, and have recently moved to promote marriage in substantial ways, including working with churches. Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle signed into law a bill last month requiring schools that offer human growth and development courses to teach abstinence as the preferred behavior for teens.

Earlier this year, President Bush reauthorized the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The reauthorization includes $150 million to support programs aimed at promoting healthy marriages. Up to $50 million of that amount may be used for programs to encourage responsible fatherhood. HHS is encouraging local governments, nonprofits, faith-based groups, and churches with relevant programs to apply for grant money.

Bob Suver, director of the Department of Job and Family Services in Clark County, Ohio, has already applied. Mr. Suver, who also serves as president of the National Association of County Human Services Agencies, has worked closely with churches and faith-based groups in Clark County over the last two years to promote marriage. He says he's seen results.

"I had been kind of skeptical in the past about whether this could have an effect," he told WORLD. But Mr. Suver was eager to find new ways to address his county's exceptionally high divorce rate: "Most years we had as many divorces as marriages, and some years we had more."

After reading a slew of evidence about the results some faith-based groups had achieved, Mr. Suver began funding Clark County Marriage Savers. The group is a local chapter of the national Marriage Savers, a faith-based organization devoted to preserving marriage.

Clark County gave the marriage program $100,000 in 2004. By 2005, the county's divorce rate had dropped by 18.7 percent. Mr. Suver doesn't attribute the drop exclusively to the Marriage Savers program, but says, "We're definitely moving in a positive direction."

About 100 out of 160 churches have joined the Clark County marriage program since 2004. Member churches agree to establish premarital counseling requirements for couples seeking to wed. Churches also train married volunteers to mentor couples through engagement. Married couples experiencing marital difficulties can go to a member church for help. Mr. Suver's office refers clients to the program as well.

Mr. Suver believes preventive measures are the key to diverting from divorce: "We want to get upstream from the problem." He hopes diverting divorces will also reduce cases of welfare and child support in the county: "We have 900 child-support cases per worker right now. . . . We hope to reduce that load."

Two other counties in Ohio are experimenting with similar programs, and Mr. Suver hopes to encourage counties across the United States to consider adopting the plan. "We throw money at so many things," he says. "Why not at least try this?"

Mr. Köstenberger supports government programs that encourage marriage. But he also says Christians should remember that the current marriage crisis is ultimately spiritual, not political: "We may not be able to save this world or culture from deterioration, but that's not really in our hands."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.