Making Vows Last Longer In Louisiana

Cynthia Andres has been through a divorce. At 16, she was forced to move with her mother to Louisiana from Illinois when her parents ended their marriage. While friends were getting their first cars and settling into high school, she was starting over again, in a place where the summers are Cajun-hot.

Now a student at Louisiana State University here, Ms. Andres is determined never to go through that again. She and her fianc, Stacy, may sign a unique "covenant" marriage license - part of a pioneering experiment in Louisiana to strengthen marriage by setting up premarital counseling and making divorce more difficult.

"It's too simple to get married and too simple to get divorced," Andres says, on break from serving crawfish-stuffed chicken at a local restaurant.

Louisiana's move is emblematic of a growing nationwide revolt over no-fault divorce and revolving-door marriages. At least 20 states have tried to pass similar laws, but Louisiana, deep in the so-called Bible belt, could be the first to push through such a measure. If approved by Gov. Mike Foster (R), as expected, it will make Louisiana a test case for whether states can help rebuild one of society's most important and troubled institutions.

Louisiana's Marriage Plan

"It's an effort to strengthen marriage once again ... to strike a blow at the heart of the problem," says Louisiana Rep. Tony Perkins (R), the bill's author.

The measure requires those who opt for a covenant marriage to receive premarital counseling from a therapist or a member of the clergy. They must sign an affidavit stating they understand the responsibilities and restrictions of a covenant marriage, and promise to seek counseling if their marriage falters. The marriage could then be broken only by adultery, abandonment, abuse, a felony conviction, or a lengthy separation - no-fault divorce, in which couples untie the knot without assigning blame, is not an option. Already-married couples can also sign the covenant license under the new bill.

But critics of the bill have come from all sides.

Many argue that while divorce is often too easy, it is sometimes the right answer. A covenant marriage could trap someone whose spouse is an alcoholic or hurt low-income families with little means for counseling or court proceedings, says Martha Kegel, a staff attorney for the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I'm afraid this bill will encourage people who are good people to waive their rights without really knowing what they're doing," she says.

Another concern is that punitive divorce laws may encourage couples to live together rather than marry. While the Christian Coalition and other religious groups helped the bill fly through the capitol, some churchgoers like the Rev. James Stovall believe that governments are rushing.

"I think what we need are not laws that will limit people, but laws that will help them take a more positive approach to marriage," says Mr. Stovall, a retired Methodist pastor who helped write the state's Constitution in 1974.

Still, some churches - including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans and the state's Episcopal Church - are considering making a covenant marriage mandatory for anyone who wants their church's blessing.

That frightens social worker Bonnye Pardo, who specializes in relationship therapy and often testifies as an expert witness in domestic violence cases.

"If they make it a requirement, it's not a choice," Ms. Pardo says. "In theory, it sounds great, but I see it as not very workable in reality. With the covenant marriage, there's going to be a burden of proof, and in abuse, the burden of proof is on the victim."

Nonetheless, the covenant marriage arrangement is drawing interest from many quarters.

Luke LaVergne, a Baton Rouge family court judge, says he plans to take his wife of 37 years to get a covenant marriage, just to underscore his commitment.

Judge LaVergne says he expects many starry-eyed lovers to opt for a covenant marriage when it becomes available on Aug. 15. "Most young people, when they get married, it's not foreseeable to them what it's like 10, 15 years down the road," he says. "I don't think the young folks today have that kind of commitment inculcated into them."

But the measure may speed the maturation process along. Simply discussing the covenant-marriage option will force couples to consider the vows they are about to take, he says. "If one wants the covenant marriage and the other doesn't, they'll have their first argument in the marriage license office."

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