- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

NEW YORK Across America, it is easy to find politicians and civic leaders decrying the prevalence and social cost of divorce. It is far harder to find consensus about what, if anything, policy-makers should do in response.

An array of proposals has reached legislative hearing rooms; few of substance have been enacted.

No state has followed Florida's example in requiring a marriage-education curriculum for public high school students. Only one state, Arizona, has joined pioneering Louisiana in approving covenant marriages, in which couples voluntarily impose limits on their ability to divorce.

Despite the setbacks, including rebuffs of covenant-marriage bills in more than 20 legislatures, supporters of the so-called "Marriage Movement" are encouraged.

"At least marriage is back on the agenda," said Alan Hawkins, a professor of family sciences at Brigham Young University. "I find that amazing."

Mr. Hawkins supports covenant marriage and several other proposals created to discourage divorce, but he is not surprised at the wary reaction of many legislators.

"We're treading on very sensitive ground," he said. "We're just surfacing from a generation of living in a culture of divorce, and questioning whether it was everything we hoped it would be. It's a bigger step from questioning, and realizing there are real problems, to saying we ought to do something about the problems."

Different tactics to curb divorce have been tried in other states, often unsuccessfully. In Minnesota, Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed a bill last year that would have lowered marriage-license fees for couples who seek counseling before tying the knot.

"I do not believe that government has a role in marriage counseling," Mr. Ventura said.

Last year in Wisconsin, a federal judge struck down a new state law that earmarked $210,000 in welfare money to help members of the clergy encourage mentoring of younger couples by long-married couples. The judge said the law unconstitutionally favored ministers over lay people such as judges or justices of the peace.

In Florida, lawmakers did reach consensus in 1998 on a first-of-its-kind bill that promotes premarital counseling and requires relationship skills to be taught in high school.

Former state Rep. Elaine Bloom of Miami, who sponsored the bill, believes other states will take similar steps. However, she said any curriculum on the topic is likely to be attacked from both the left and right as a government intrusion into family matters.

She said she persevered because of the heartbreak that can accompany family breakups.

"The most poignant statements I heard were from fathers who said, 'If I had known before I started the divorce process how difficult it would be to see my kids, I would have made a better attempt to be a good husband and father.' "

Oklahoma has been the most aggressive state in combating divorce, pursuing a multipronged $10 million initiative under the leadership of Gov. Frank Keating. He wants to cut the state's divorce rate one of the nation's highest by a third within a decade.

Last month, more than 200 Oklahoma religious leaders agreed that they would request engaged couples in their institutions to go through a four- to six-month marital-preparation period.


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