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Love in the Fine Print
by Martin Kaste
January 5, 2000
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Two state legislators are reviving the idea of "covenant marriages" - an optional form of marriage contract that would make it tougher to get divorced. Supporters say covenant marriages would strengthen families and reduce poverty and crime rates. But some critics are worried about what they perceive as an attack on modern divorce laws.

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See a copy of Louisiana's Covenant Marriage law.
REPUBLICAN STATE SENATOR STEVE DILLE believes divorce is the root of many of society's ills, and he says a form of marriage that makes divorce harder is the logical cure.
Dille: I believe that's part of the solution to our crime problem, the problems of welfare dependency, poor educational performance, poverty and also some public health problems.
He and State Representative Elaine Harder say they'll propose legislation this year to create "covenant marriages," an optional marriage contract that would require pre-wedding marriage training, and would impose more counseling and a two-year waiting period before the couple could get a divorce. Their idea is modeled on a law passed in 1997 in Louisiana.

David Townsend, a pastor at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, says the law has already saved marriages in his church.
Townsend: Just about every marriage, no matter how great the person is, or how Christian or moral or ethical they are, they are going to encounter some problems in marriage, I mean, life kind of deals us a bad hand sometimes, and I think time, time and counseling - the two together - are a pretty strong force.
Still, the covenant marriage hasn't exactly taken off yet in Louisiana. Statistics from about six months ago show only three percent of new marriages are covenants.

The author of the Louisiana law, Baton Rouge State Representative Tony Perkins, blames the low number on what he calls a "learning curve," and he says he remains confident that the movement against easy, no-fault divorces is growing.
Perkins: The positive thing is that it's created a tremendous amount of discussion, not only in the state but across the country, about the problem of the American family.
There certainly is nationwide interest in the concept. Perkins says he's fielded thousands of phone calls from out of state since he first introduce his covenant marriage bill, and at least a dozen state legislatures considered covenant bills last year, including Minnesota. Arizona passed a version of it last year.

Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, agrees there's growing national interest in covenant marriages, and she's worried it could end up depriving both women and men of their right to get out of bad marriages.
Gandy: People don't understand what they're giving up. They're in their 20s, they're in love, and somebody says, "If you're really, really in love, and you really care about each other, you'll sign this thing." "Oh sure, sure, hand me a pen and I'll sign." And I think that's wrong, to give people the idea that somehow they don't really care about each other unless they're willing to give up a whole set of legal protections down the line. That's why we have those legal protections there.
Gandy says she worries about one spouse spending the couple's assets during the two-year waiting period, or running up debts, or subjecting the other to verbal or physical abuse. The legislators proposing the legislation say they've foreseen some of these situations, and their legislation would allow for a quick divorce in cases of abuse, adultery, abandonment or if one spouse is convicted of a felony.

Representative Elaine Harder emphasizes the legislation is meant to offer a choice to couples, but she also repeatedly side-stepped questions about whether she'd like covenant marriages to become the norm, and whether she favors phasing out "no-fault" divorces.
Harder: Perhaps this is something we will all embrace in the years to come as we see the change in the attitude toward the commitment to marry is a positive thing.
Harder and Dille say they'll introduce their covenant marriage bill when the Legislature reconvenes in February; they say they do not believe other marriage-related legislation, such as same-sex marriage, should be part of the debate.