- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

It takes even an untrained observer about 10 seconds to see how much Terri Lucas and Philip Cofer are in love.

They sit close to each other on the couch in Miss Lucas' living room in Lanham. They talk to each other softly, tenderly, often touching each other's knee or shoulder as they make a point. They occasionally finish each other's sentences and frequently giggle or chuckle together.

They met eight years ago, started dating seven years ago and plan in a few short months to walk down the aisle together as husband and wife. They have taken two premarital counseling courses and say they feel they know each other as well as two persons can before making the biggest decision they'll ever make.

Their marriage won't be a formal "covenant marriage" as is on the books in Louisiana, which passed a covenant-marriage law in 1997. But it does seem to be a covenant in every sense of the word for Miss Lucas and Mr. Cofer.

They are part of a growing cultural movement back to what many social and religious conservatives say is the original intent of marriage to be an unbreakable covenant rather than a contract on a piece of paper. Such words as "covenant" and "commitment" are entering increasingly into the national dialogue over marriage and divorce, and legislators across the country are taking notice.

'Extinguishing the self'

Miss Lucas laughs and Mr. Cofer shakes his head when they are asked how they met. It was eight years ago at an office where Miss Lucas was working temporarily; Mr. Cofer walked past, caught a glimpse, and was smitten.

He recalls rehearsing various introductory lines in the men's room to soothe his nerves but when the big moment arrived, all he could muster, Miss Lucas says with a laugh, was: "How old are you?"

Mr. Cofer smiles sheepishly.

"I came back the next day with a rose," he says. "I was nervous; what can I say? I tried to make up for it, I guess."

He did. The two got engaged last year and are planning their wedding. They went through a series of premarital mentoring sessions with Mike McManus, a syndicated columnist (The Washington Times runs his monthly column, "Religion and ethics," in the Family Times section), and his wife, Harriet.

Mr. McManus is the founder of Marriage Savers, a church-based marriage counseling and support organization.

After that, they undertook a series of premarital counseling sessions with a pastor at Miss Lucas' church in Temple Hills. Along the way, they settled one of many burning issues they'll inevitably face as a couple where to attend church together. After almost a year of uncertainty, they decided on Miss Lucas' church. They reached that decision with the help of conflict-resolution tools they had learned with the McManuses and in their counseling sessions, giving them extra confidence that they'll be ready for life together.

"One of the big things I've learned through all this is the purpose of marriage the oneness," says Miss Lucas, a reading specialist with the Montgomery County Public School System. "You've got to extinguish your individual self, your self-will, your self-centeredness, and create unity with your spouse. That is difficult. We're so career-minded and independent that coming to that point was very hard for both of us."

For Mr. Lucas, marriage preparation has taught him different techniques for learning about himself and his relationship with Miss Lucas.

"Deciding what church we were going to go to, that was a big deal," he says. "My uncle is a pastor at my old church, and I got some grief from my family over the decision to change. But we're much happier and much more spiritually fulfilled knowing we made the right decision and reaching it the way we did."

Kevin and Christi Opstrup of Silver Spring also went through a series of premarital counseling sessions before they got married two years ago. That included a series of meetings with an older "mentor" couple at their church.

"We learned a lot of things, fromfamily budgeting to how two different personalities learn to live with one another," says Mr. Opstrup, 32.

"When we were taking some of the tests, I was thinking, 'Oh great, this kind of puts us in a square block,'" says Mrs. Opstrup, 27. "But it wasn't a matter of telling you what to do right and what would be wrong; it was just showing you where the points of discussion come about in your marriage, even in areas both of you were strong in and agreed on."

Turning concept into law

Louisiana was the first state to pass a covenant-marriage law, in 1997, and Arizona followed the next year. The law gives couples the option of choosing what Mr. McManus calls a "fortified marriage contract," making it harder for them to obtain a divorce.

For instance, Louisiana law allows married couples to obtain a divorce within six months of the marriage. Covenant marriage stretches that to two years. The covenant-marriage option also eliminates most "no-fault" divorce. To dissolve the marriage, couples have to prove adultery or that one of them has been convicted of a felony. Also, couples agree to go through premarital counseling before the marriage.

"What this does is give both parties more of a genuine partnership in the marriage relationship," Mr. McManus says.

Louisiana and Arizona are the only states with marriage-covenant laws on the books, although similar legislation has been or is being considered in Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and Oregon.

Neither the Maryland nor the Virginia General Assembly is considering a covenant-marriage law, but Maryland's House of Delegates has passed a bill that would give couples a discount on their marriage-license application fee if they undergo premarital counseling. The bill passed the House 104-24 last month and is in Senate committee hearings now.

A similar bill was vetoed last year by Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, who said it lacked specificity, but Delegate John Leopold, Anne Arundel County Republican, who co-sponsored both bills, says this bill has answered Mr. Glendening's objections.

"We spend millions of dollars to pay for the wreckage of marriage, but too little in the preventive tools to strengthen marriage," says Mr. Leopold, who is divorced and says he could have benefited from premarital counseling. "I happen to believe that although the bill offers a small monetary incentive to promote premarital education, efforts small and large are necessary to help strengthen marriage and help individuals better prepare for a family setting."

The effectiveness of the covenant-marriage law is subject to debate and interpretation. Most observers agree that it is too early to gauge the law's impact on divorce. Relatively few couples seem to be signing up for it.

Steven Nock, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia who has studied covenant-marriage law, says about 3 percent of couples who sign up for marriage licenses in Louisiana choose the covenant-marriage option.

"We found there is a lot of opposition to covenant marriage for various reasons," Mr. Nock says. "There is a general sense among a lot of individuals that the state has no real business venturing into the area of marriage and family life. But the more compelling reason for the low incidence of covenant marriage is that very few people have ever heard about it."

Mr. Nock cites three surveys done as part of his studies that show just about four in 10 adults in Louisiana and Arizona have heard of the marriage-covenant law.

Mr. Nock says another factor working against the law in Louisiana is that the clerks of court in Louisiana are not informing marriage-license applicants about the marriage-covenant option and in many cases even are actively discouraging couples from applying for it. That sentiment seems to represent the bulk of criticism of the law.

"There is additional work for the clerks," Mr. Nock says. "Covenant marriage requires an extra affidavit and a statement of intent, so instead of being one legal document, there are three. But I think more than the paperwork, there is a general distrust among the clerks down there, that some of them think this is political grandstanding on the part of the right, and if they ignore it long enough, it will go away. Some tell us they see it as an uncomfortable church-state alliance."

Jeff Hickerson, a court clerk supervisor in the East Baton Rouge Parish of Louisiana, says he has heard "through the grapevine" about clerks discouraging couples from applying for covenant-marriage licenses, but he says none of his clerks has done so. He agreed with Mr. Nock's 3 percent estimate.

Mr. McManus says another reason covenant marriages aren't thriving in Louisiana is that pastors there don't talk about the option much with the couples they counsel.

"It isn't explained well by the state or the pastors down there," Mr. McManus says. "It's astounding. Who would want to get married to someone who can't or isn't willing to make a commitment for life?"

Still, Mr. Nock says the mere fact that the country is talking about marriage as a covenant is a sign that the Louisiana and Arizona laws are working.

"These laws in and of themselves may not have enormous effects on people," he says, "but as we continue to do these kinds of things, people might start realizing that marriage is a different kind of thing, and we need to take a hard look at it."

The Louisiana bill's sponsor, state Rep. Tony Perkins, a Republican, says the numbers are a little less than what he would like to see but he's getting "very positive feedback" from couples he meets.

"I rarely go a week or two without getting feedback from couples who say it saved their relationship and kept them from walking," he says. "They realized when they slowed down that they were making a big mistake [in contemplating divorce], and they were glad they worked it out."

New national discourse

Phil Waugh, a family-ministry specialist at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn., and a co-founder of the Covenant Marriage Movement in 1999, attributes the growing interest in covenant marriage to the work of God.

"God is working in various arenas of life to draw couples and the nation back to a healthy perspective of the covenant relationship he established," Mr. Waugh says. "All the activity we see from the state governments, the laws, even those in the secular arena psychologists and psychotherapists attention is being drawn to marriage because of the demise we sense in our nation. We've got a lot of hurting people out there, and everyone wants to know why."

The Covenant Marriage Movement was founded as a collaborative attempt by more than 40 Christian ministries, organizations and denominations to strengthen the cultural institution of marriage, both in the culture at large and in churches across the country. Leo Godzich, a Phoenix pastor who helped found the Covenant Marriage Movement with Mr. Waugh and Mr. Perkins, says the movement is a cultural reaction to what he calls the social disaster of no-fault divorce.

"We know the social cost of the breakdown of marriage, " Mr. Godzich says. "We have to get the message out about marriage. We do live in a nation that is motivated by its pocketbook, so everyone can respond to what has happened socially because of marriage breakdowns."

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