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Covenant Marriages Article - Denver Post

Covenant marriages aimed at reducing divorce rates

By Eric Gorski, DENVER POST
Inside Bay Area


AFTER 15 YEARS as husband and wife, Larry and Lorrie Russell decided that wedding vows with the standard line about "till death do us part" were not enough.

The couple had a strong marriage. But was it a covenant marriage, an unbreakable pact before God, transcending earthly laws?
Maybe not, they thought. So a few years ago, the Russells looked hard at their marriage and concluded that deep down, if he did this or she did that, they'd consider divorcing.

The couple forged a new kind of contract, sealed in a simple promise: "When you take your last breath, I'll be there."
No matter what. Even if one of them has an affair or walks away from the Christian faith.

"We wanted a return to where marriage has its origins for a lifetime, like it says in the Bible," said Larry Russell, who with his wife runs Shepherd's Heart Ministry in Denver, offering counseling for pastors. "Marriage is the foundation of our society. It isn't disposable."

The idea of saying "I do" and then some is gaining momentum with evangelical Christians who view covenant marriage through a dual prism: as a confirmation that marriage should be between one man and one woman, and as a call to responsibility, a way for born-again Christians to reduce divorce rates that mirror society's.
Adopted in three states

Three states Arizona, Arkansas and Louisiana have adopted covenant marriages, requiring premarital counseling and a waiting period before divorces, as a legal alternative to standard marriages. But few people have taken the option.

With covenant marriage stalled at the legislative level, advocates are returning to the grass roots, building support at churches in states where covenant marriage is not an option.

Earlier this month, congregations nationwide participated in "Covenant Marriage Sunday," demonstrating that holding marriages to stricter standards than current divorce law does not require visiting the county clerk.

The event, at which couples will sign covenant "commitment cards," has grown from 500 churches last year to 5,000 this year and has the backing of the Colorado-based evangelical groups Focus on the Family and Promise Keepers.

"Radical times demand radical responses," said Dennis Rainey, executive director of FamilyLife, a Little Rock ministry that stages marriage-strengthening conferences. "The covenant of marriage has basically been raped of its meaning. It's easier to get out of a marriage than a contract for a used car."

When Louisiana became the first state to pass a covenant marriage law in 1997, it was hailed as the first move in 200 years to make divorce harder, not easier.

Couples sign contracts agreeing to premarital counseling and promise to seek more counseling if things go sour. Divorce is allowed only in cases of abuse, abandonment, adultery or a felony conviction. Even then, a 21/2-year waiting period is necessary. Arizona and Arkansas approved similar provisions in 1998 and 2001, respectively.

Disappointing response

But the response hasn't been what supporters hoped. Louisiana boasts the highest participation: about 1 in 50 new marriages, or 2 percent. In Arkansas, 600 couples have chosen covenant marriage in the last three years out of about 40,000 marriages a year. In Arizona, where a looser law allows couples a quick divorce if both spouses agree, participation is 1 percent.

About two dozen state legislatures have rejected covenant marriage laws since the late 1990s.

The shift is on, however, to win over the people who perform the vast majority of marriages pastors. In Louisiana, some pastors will only perform covenant marriages in their churches, and the same thing is being tried in Arkansas.

Others believe the timing is right for covenant marriage because of the role that "moral values" played in President Bush's re-election, the influence evangelicals have on his administration and votes in November to bar gay marriage in 11 states.

"I think there's a real push back against those who say marriage is not necessarily between a man and a woman," said Bishop Philip Porter, a former Promise Keepers board chairman and pastor of All Nations Pentecostal Center Church of God in Christ in Aurora, Colo., where members will get a chance to sign covenant marriage pledges next weekend.

But there are skeptics. Barbara Atwood, a University of Arizona law professor, doubts covenant marriage will occupy anything more than a niche because laws generally reflect social reality, and legislative efforts to alter that usually fail.

The movement toward no-fault divorce in the 1960s, for example, was in part driven by the fact that many people were exaggerating problems to clear the high legal bar required to get a divorce, said Atwood, who teaches family law. Despite the best efforts of covenant-marriage supporters, there is no clamor to make divorce more difficult, she said.

Impact questioned

"We've been living with fairly lenient divorce laws for a long time," Atwood said. "Individual choice and autonomy in decision-making has really become part of our social beliefs. Covenant marriage, increased government spending on marriage-education classes . . . I don't see a hugely significant impact."

Some critics say covenant marriage could trap women in abusive relationships and prove a burden to the economically weaker spouse if things deteriorate. While research shows children are better off in two-parent families, keeping children in broken marriages doesn't do them any good, either, said Stephanie Coontz, a family studies professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
"I think people are looking for a quick fix for something that's not fixable in old-fashioned terms," said Coontz, director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families. "It may work for a few couples, and good for them, but it's not going to work for society as a whole."

In the only in-depth study of covenant marriage, Steven Nock, a sociology and psychology professor at the University of Virginia, compared 350 Louisiana couples in standard marriages and 350 couples who chose covenant marriage.

By the five-year mark, 16 percent of standard marriages had ended in divorce, compared with 10 percent in covenant pacts.

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