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I’ll Stand Bayou

Friday, May 1, 1998

Louisiana couples choose
a more muscular marriage contract

The pipe organ at the First Baptist Church in Robert, Louisiana, erupts into "The Wedding March." The bride, Erlene Thompson, is a little nervous. She need not be: She has known the gray-haired groom for most of her life. More precisely, she has been married to John Thompson for the last 37 years. Together they have raised four children, who have given them eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild—an infant boy whom Erlene cradles in her arms as she steps down the aisle. "The vows this time were a lot more meaningful to both of us," she says later. "It just runs much, much deeper."

The Thompsons, however, didn’t just renew their vows. They rewrote them, based on the state’s new, tough-minded marriage law. Following a brief ceremony, they and more than two dozen other couples from their church signed a legally binding agreement, witnessed by a state notary, pledging "to take all reasonable efforts" to preserve their marriage unto death. "We wanted to be an example for our children and their children," she says afterward, "that no matter what kind of troubles and trials you have, you can weather them."

The Louisiana Covenant Marriage Act, passed into law last August, remains controversial, and with good reason: It is the first experiment in raising both the entrance and exit requirements for marriage since the no-fault divorce revolution began in the 1970s. On the front end, it requires premarital counseling. On the back end, it limits the legal grounds for divorce to adultery, felony conviction, abandonment, physical or sexual abuse, or separation of at least two years. It also requires that struggling couples get counseling before they may call it quits.

Here’s the part that puts choice-loving liberals in a quandary: The covenant contract is purely optional. By leaving the existing no-fault regime untouched, Louisiana has created the nation’s first two-tier marriage system. The message to couples contemplating the strength of their marital commitment: you choose—decaf or double espresso.

Barbs have come from all sides, from conservatives worried about "intrusive" government to feminists fearful of women being "trapped" in bad marriages. Skeptics point out that so far only a small number of newlyweds have chosen the covenant option. Others complain that it still offers couples a generous escape clause.

All of this misses the most remarkable aspect of the Louisiana effort: In a culture that disposes of commitments as easily as paper cups, the very existence of a more muscular marital contract can help redefine attitudes toward marriage.

"Law is a wonderfully powerful symbol of what we hold as important," says Steven Nock, a University of Virginia sociologist studying the impact of the Louisiana law. "The public discussion that covenant marriage already has provoked is a very healthy sign." Private discussions are important as well. Says Louisiana state representative Tony Perkins, who sponsored the legislation, "Some couples may have their first and last argument over which type of marriage to choose."

Hundreds of congregations throughout the state have called Perkins’s office to request information on the law. Leaders of entire denominations, from the Catholic Church to the Assemblies of God, are considering whether to endorse the idea. Many married couples already have: Over the last six months, thousands have converted to covenant arrangements. Thousands more are expected to follow suit in June in ceremonies across the state. Meanwhile, legislatures in nearly two dozen states are considering covenant-style reforms.

ith little practical support, covenant advocates are persuading much of the state’s religious community—and many outside it—to rethink their entire approach to shoring up marriage in America. "Law can change incentives, and incentives can shape behavior," writes William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton. "It is amazing how many people who believe (rightly) that civil rights laws helped change racial attitudes deny that any such consequences can flow from changes in the laws of marriage and divorce." Though less than a year old, the Louisiana statute already offers both liberals and conservatives an object lesson that law can be used to instigate, but not compel, traditional virtue.

Last, Best Hope for Marriage

Religious leaders will be vital to this effort. Eighty percent of all marriages still take place in churches and synagogues. That makes the religious community, as one pastor puts it, "the last, best hope" for the recovery of marriage in America. No other institution has the moral authority to challenge men and women to make the commitments necessary for sustaining marriage. "Too many people want to use the church as a nice, pretty building to get married in," says Louis Husser, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Robert. "That’s not the way to help people over the long term."

As with every other issue in the nation’s culture war, the covenant concept inspires handwringing as well as hallelujahs among religious leaders. Bishop Charles Jenkins, the leader of the Episcopal Church in Louisiana, reversed his predecessor’s endorsement of the plan, warning that "it goes back to the bad old days" of fault-based divorce. Bishop Dan Solomon, the highest-ranking official of the United Methodist Church in Louisiana, has dismissed the law as "a denigration of marriage vows long held and faithfully honored."

The Catholic Church, the spiritual home of a third of churchgoing Louisianans, is still mulling over its position. The state’s Catholic bishops praised the legislature’s "commendable concern" for strengthening marriage. But they have stopped short of endorsing covenant marriage over the state’s easy-exit licenses.

Catholic officials are unhappy with the law’s requirement that engaged couples receive premarital counseling about the new conditions for divorce. Any discussion of divorce before marriage is anathema to Catholic doctrine and would "confuse or obscure" church teaching, the bishops say. The state’s seven dioceses are now reviewing proposed amendments to the law that attempt to address the counseling question.

Despite these setbacks, covenant marriage is being embraced by a growing number of conservative Protestant groups. It has gained the tacit endorsement of the Southern Baptists, the state’s second-largest religious body after the Catholic Church. In a resolution that received unanimous approval, the Louisiana Baptist Convention praised the new policy as an attempt "to move the legal standards for marriage and divorce closer to the standards of the Word of God." Earlier this year, 150 Protestant pastors and their wives met in Baton Rouge to convert their own unions to covenant marriages. About 300 evangelical churches invited couples in their congregations to do the same on Valentine’s Day.

Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition is instructing its state chairmen to make passage of similar measures one of their top legislative priorities. Evangelical Protestant leader James Dobson, whose Colorado-based Focus on the Family radio program reaches at least 3 million listeners a day, is also on board. "This is an idea whose time has come," Dobson said in a recent broadcast. "We’re going to do everything we can to support covenant marriage."

Taking a Stand

After a slow start, Louisiana couples are steadily warming to the concept. Though only a few hundred newlyweds have chosen covenant marriage, state officials say that perhaps 3,000 married couples have upgraded their nuptials. At the First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, about 60 couples signed covenant agreements in a single weekend. At Glad Tidings, an Assembly of God church in Lake Charles, 240 did so. And at a ceremony held by a large evangelical church outside Baton Rouge, 500 couples recently underwent a covenant conversion.

These just may be the stirrings of a sleeping giant. Church leaders are increasingly ready to declare their congregations "no-fault-free" zones: Many are refusing to marry couples who fail to choose the covenant contract.

The Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, with an average weekend attendance of nearly 6,000, is one of the largest congregations in Louisiana. Pastor Ted Long and his staff quickly decided to require covenant marriage contracts; none of his 22-member pastoral staff will marry couples without one. Robyn Rodgers, Long’s daughter, was the first to be married at Bethany under the new regime. "It really gives an added sense of security," Rodgers says. "We know that if we have problems, we can’t just say ‘I’m leaving.’"

The district board of the Assemblies of God, representing 238 churches across the state, is expected to recommend that all its pastors say "no" to no-fault unions. Congregations would be free to follow their own course, but the Reverend John Bosman, a denominational leader, calls the board’s decision "a very strong statement." As this issue went to press, denominational officials were planning an April ceremony in which about 300 church delegates will convert their marriages to covenant agreements.

Pastors and parishioners alike stress the importance of setting an example of strong marriages for other couples and their families. At numerous ceremonies around the state, couples converting to covenant unions celebrate amid throngs of children. "Example is extremely important," says Stuart Lankford, an associate pastor at Glad Tidings. "It will cause couples to think more seriously about what they’re getting ready to do."

Sociologists tend to agree. They say people rarely change their behaviors simply in response to a law or public pronouncement. "People typically take their cues from those they know and trust," says Nock of the University of Virginia. "With more role models and public examples, the law’s standard is likely to gradually seep into the public consciousness."

Why Counseling Is Not Optional

Making a lifelong commitment is one thing, of course. Keeping it often requires help. Supporters say one of the law’s most important dictates is that struggling couples must agree to counseling before they can take steps toward dissolving their union.

That makes perfect sense to the leaders at First Presbyterian in Baton Rouge, which now marries only covenant couples. The 1,600-member church has long offered a meaty premarital counseling regimen. Couples are required to give 90 days’ notice before their wedding day, meet several times with a pastor, attend a day-long engagement seminar, fill out a compatibility questionnaire, and discuss the results with a church counselor.

The law’s requirement that couples considering divorce must first seek help gives pastors even more leverage. "We can do the front-end stuff, but not the back-end stuff," Stevenson says. "When a couple really is having problems, you can’t make them get counseling. But the law influences them." Bethany’s Ted Long agrees: "Men are notoriously resistant to counseling. But the force of law means they are going to have to sit down and get some help."

People can choose either religious or secular mediators, but either way they’ll be read the riot act. The law obligates them to talk frankly about their marital responsibilities as spelled out in their marriage license and in the Marriage Covenant Act, a pamphlet prepared by the state’s attorney general.

Some newlyweds are, in fact, banking on tough medicine to help get them through the hard times. Ben and Jennifer Ramagos-Young had both been married and divorced before they met. When Jennifer told her attorney she was getting married again, this time under the covenant contract, the attorney tried to talk her out of it. But Jennifer insisted. "Slowing things down," she says, "will allow us to get the counseling we both may need before we make a rash decision." Buying time is often exactly what marriages in crisis need: better for couples to be talking, even through clenched teeth, than consulting with divorce lawyers.

Under the new law, an abused spouse can still escape the relationship with relative ease. But for couples simply drifting apart, the law’s two-year waiting period—rather than six months under no-fault—gives them a chance to work things out. "We’re not erecting a barricade," Perkins says. "We’re just putting in some speed bumps."

Studies show that couples who undergo counseling are likely to navigate the storms of conflict and stay afloat. Psychology professor Howard Markman has summarized 17 studies of the impact of counseling on marital satisfaction. He found that nearly three out of four distressed couples who got help reported significant improvement in their relationships. Markman, a professor at the University of Denver, says that "for couples who want to work on their relationship, there is no reason why the marriage can’t be saved."

If Markman is right, then divorce may be avoidable far more often than we think. For one thing, most breakups are not driven by extreme abuse: About two-thirds result from "low-level conflict" in which couples slowly drift apart. Second, in most cases the decision to separate is not mutual. According to family scholars Frank Furstenberg and Andrew Cherlin, four out of five divorces occur despite the objections of one partner. Herma Hill Kay, a principal backer of California’s no-fault divorce legislation in 1969, later offered a mournful observation on marital meltdowns: "Divorce by unilateral fiat is closer to desertion than to mutual separation."

All of this suggests that the key to rescuing failing marriages is to address issues of commitment and character, a process best tackled with extended, roll-up-your-sleeves counseling. No-fault divorce short-circuits this process. "The present divorce law is something we as pastors fight, because there isn’t enough time to help people," Stevenson says. "It drains away the motivation of counseling, because the back door is wide open and people are ready to rush out."

Finding Fault

The most controversial part of the Louisiana experiment is its return to a fault-based system for divorce—the same system discarded by the no-fault revolution. Critics claim that reintroducing fault would only fuel hostilities in failing marriages. But others point out that fault has not really disappeared from divorce proceedings, it just insinuates itself into battles over alimony payments, division of property, and child custody.

More importantly, they say, divorce laws ought to contain notions of objective fault to signal society’s disapproval of certain kinds of behavior. "Collective condemnation of reprehensible acts is powerful and should occur," says Katherine Spaht, a law professor at Louisiana State University who helped craft the legislation. "Guilt and shame, if our society can restore it, often controls human behavior."

Maggie Gallagher, the author of The Abolition of Marriage, suggests that no-fault laws may even increase the likelihood of domestic violence by failing to identify and punish men financially for their marital crimes. Domestic violence is a clear ground for divorce under covenant marriage—a first for Louisiana law. "There is plenty of abuse and adultery out there," says Stevenson, a pastor for 36 years. "Couples deal much more realistically with their lives when they face the issue of fault where it can be identified."

The Law as Tutor

Feminists and other no-fault defenders argue it is a mistake to blame divorce laws for failed marriages. But pastors in the trenches of marital counseling say the message and mechanism of no-fault make it much harder to hold couples together. "They should crawl out from under their rocks and get in the real world where people are struggling," says Louis Husser, a Baptist pastor for 23 years. "No-fault has created a test-drive mentality."

Lawmakers and nationwide want more couples to close the deal—and keep it closed. At least 24 states are considering covenant marriage legislation. "When you make a commitment of this nature, you need to back it up with something," says Arizona state senator David Petersen, who is pushing a covenant bill. In Alabama, the house of delegates has approved a similar measure. "The state’s role is to establish legal protections for an institution that God created," says Stan Watson, the director of research at the Alabama Family Council, which helped draft the legislation. Oklahoma state representative Jim Reese secured 52 co-authors for his bill, which passed the house 90 to 6. Reese says it is his "top priority" to publicly raise the bar for marriage through covenant-style reform.

The law as moral tutor—the very concept tends to make both liberals and libertarians shudder. Yet it is the premise underlying the covenant experiment. Says Spaht, "We’re not all going to make it, but not having any ideal in the law lowers the standard." Or to cite an old Chinese proverb: He who aims at nothing hits it.

"The story about marriage contained in the law—of marriage as a temporary bond sustained by mutual emotion alone—is becoming the dominant story we tell about marriage in America," writes Gallagher in the religious journal First Things. The problem with this story is that it usually contains an unhappy ending: More than half of all new marriages in the United States will end in divorce or permanent separation, and most will involve minor children.

Must we settle for such failure and all the social consequences that go along with it? Must it be no-fault or nothing?

Covenant marriage uses both law and civil society to confront couples with the nature of their marriage commitment. Such confrontation could help rewrite our nation’s most troubling cultural tale. "Everybody now, as a result of the law, will be forced to make a decision," Nock says. "How they resolve that is going to be very interesting."