Wisconsin hires a marriage counselor


It's the sort of advice a caring parent might give: Don't go rushing headlong into marriage. Take some time first and figure out what you both want in your life.

Today, more and more, such words of caution are coming from states weary of shelling out millions of dollars to clean up the fallout from divorce - everything, lawmakers say, from clogged courts to welfare to crime.

Arkansas's governor has declared a state of marital emergency, calling for a 50 percent reduction in the divorce rate. Oklahoma is trying to reduce failed marriages by one-third. Florida has instituted a three-day waiting period, hoping to give couples time to consider their marriage prospects rather than racing down the aisle.

Now, Wisconsin is taking an even more active role in the lives of couples. It has just created the nation's first government-funded marriage guru - a state employee who would work with clergy in interested communities, establishing requirements that couples would have to meet before being wed in a church.

"Just the idea that states and communities are talking about the problem of divorce is a real eye-opener," says David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

States' greater willingness to tackle the issue of marriage stems from several causes, including wider knowledge of the harm divorce can do to children, the growing conservatism of baby boomers as they take hold of national institutions, and the weakening of the radical feminist movement. In addition, he says, the divorce rate has begun to drop - nationwide, it fell from 4.7 per 1,000 in 1990 to 4.3 in 1997.

"It gives people hope - they think, 'Maybe we could turn this thing around,' " Mr. Popenoe says.

But while he and others contend that Wisconsin's program presages a move away from the divorce culture of recent decades, others accuse the state Assembly of sticking its nose in citizens' private lives and blurring the line between church and state.

"It is unconstitutional," says Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., which is considering a lawsuit against the new program. "It is not the business of the State of Wisconsin to promote a church program ... with public money."

But state Speaker Scott Jensen says the creation of a community marriage policy coordinator is an act of pragmatism - not proselytizing.

"We spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year in our state dealing with the fallout of failed marriages and broken homes," says Speaker Jensen, author of the proposal, which was signed into law this month. "It just makes common sense that we ought to invest a little on the front end to try to strengthen marriages in our state."

He compares the new position to the state's drug czar or the Main Street facilitator, who works with businesses to revamp downtown districts.

The program is likely to be modeled after Marriage Savers, a private faith-based program that has helped 117 communities establish marriage policies. It works with religious leaders because 75 percent of Americans are married in church.

"Most churches are wedding factories," just hitching anyone who walks in the door, says Mike McManus, a newspaper columnist and founder of the program.

Marriage Savers claims to have caused the divorce rates to plummet in cities across the US - a 63 percent drop in El Paso, Texas, over three years, one-third in Kansas City, Kan.

While the numbers are verifiable with the county clerk, both critics and supporters point out that there are no independent studies to prove Marriage Savers is the cause.

Wisconsin's yet-to-be-appointed coordinator is funded with $210,000 in federal money originally earmarked for needy families.

The 1996 act that overhauled the welfare system allowed states greater latitude in working with faith-based groups, and it also had a specific provision allowing funds to be used to strengthen families.

Wisconsin is the first state to put the money to this purpose.

If the aim is truly to help families, the state should have left the money right where it was, says Larry Bumpass, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Health care and day care for the working poor would do far more for family stability than premarital counseling and a relationship questionnaire, in his view. Especially when one considers that half of US couples who live together aren't married and one-third of children are born outside of marriage - and therefore out of the reach of this policy. "It's exceedingly ironic that the state should take money targeted for the economic well-being of families" and use it for premarital counseling "that isn't going to have any measurable effect on the divorce rate."

Paige Weisgalla would beg to differ. She was 72 hours away from signing her final divorce papers when she and her husband went to the Eau Claire Marriage Savers for help working through two solid years of problems, including adultery. Today the parents of four have celebrated their 12th anniversary. She has no doubt that Marriage Savers did just that for her family, and is thrilled her state is going to help interested communities set up similar programs.

"I think it should be mandatory," she says, offering to turn herself into a walking billboard for the program. "I would love to see this worldwide."

But turning to counseling was her choice, critics point out. "Couples know when it's appropriate and useful to seek guidance from a religious adviser," says Christopher Ahmuty, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. He also says a "majority rules" approach to marriage guidelines is disrespectful of individual faiths by "trying to impose homogenized marriage policies on the whole community."

The new policy is an experimental one, and the larger question of how closely states should be working with churches is one that's being raised on a number of fronts as politicians extend and strengthen the link between public policies and faith-based groups.

"It's not a bad thing for states to experiment. You don't find out unless you try," says William Galston, head of the School of Public Affairs and the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Besides, he adds, in the case of Wisconsin, "It's not like churches have a monopoly on marriage." If a couple doesn't want to take the premarital counseling "they can always walk down to the county clerk's office."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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