Register Correspondent

TALLAHASSEE-Florida couples headed to the altar are receiving a unique offer from the state: Complete a marriage preparation class, and get $32.50 (approximately 37%) off your marriage license fee.

Under a bill passed overwhelmingly by the Florida legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, couples who take a course on the relationship and communication skills necessary to make a marriage work would be eligible for the discount. Those who choose not to complete a course would pay the normal $88.50 license fee and be required to accept a three-day “cooling off” period before tying the knot.

The bill, introduced by State Reps. Elaine Bloom (D) and Stephen Wise (R), enjoyed bipartisan support throughout the process. Although Chiles has recently angered pro-family forces in Florida by vetoing pro-life legislation, he signed the marriage bill — called the “Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act” — in mid-June.

In addition to the discount on the license fee, the new law also increases the court fee for divorce by $32.50; requires couples with minor children who want a divorce to take a four-hour divorce education course; mandates that marriage and relationship skill-based education be offered as part of the “Life Management” curriculum in Florida's high schools; and earmarks funds for the production of a handbook that outlines the legal responsibilities of spouses to each other and to their children.

Bloom told the Register that she sees the marriage preparation bill as a logical extension of her priorities during her 23 years in the Florida legislature. The former chair of the Florida Task Force on Marriage and the Family Unit, Bloom said her concern about increasing divorce rates led her to lead the charge for the bill.

“I've been concerned for some time [about divorce rates in Florida],” she said. “This legislation is consistent with what I've been working on for many years.”

Bloom said the purpose of the bill is not to mandate communication between couples preparing for marriage, but to give them options.

“I'm not telling people what to do,” said Bloom. “I believe if you give people an option, they'll avail themselves [of] it.”

She said she was surprised by some of the opposition to the marriage preparation legislation, particularly from young legislators who objected to the provision requiring couples who do not take a preparation course to wait three days before marrying. While some legislators and interest groups have accused the legislature of meddling in citizens' private lives by passing the bill, Bloom defended it.

“All of these family issues already have government in the middle of them,” she said, noting that government often picks up the economic costs of divorce by providing for displaced homemakers through such things as job training and public assistance, and for children who suffer the harmful effects of divorce.

In the end, Bloom said the new law will have an impact on individual relationships.

People who have completed the courses, she said, told “it was a very important mark in learning more about the person they fell in love with.”

Representatives of the Florida religious community have hailed passage of the law. The Florida Christian Coalition lobbied heavily in support of the bill, and the state's Catholic Conference offered its support as well. Pat Chivers, associate for social concerns with the Florida Catholic Conference, said the law is a good first step in addressing the accelerating divorce rate in the state. Chivers, who will serve on a committee considering implementation strategies for the new law, said the law covers a variety of different marriage preparation courses, including those offered within the Catholic Church.

“It doesn't replace what the Catholic Church requires for couples preparing for marriage,” said Chivers.

Catholic couples can take a course completion certificate from their local parish or diocese and receive the $32.50 discount off the marriage license fee, she said.

Chivers said the law's focus on improving communication skills would undoubtedly offer some engaged couples a new perspective on the commitment that they are about to make.

“It's definitely a step forward in requiring Florida couples to pause before getting married,” she said. “There are many couples today who go into marriage with no training in marriage and family life.”

Pope John Paul II addressed the importance of marriage preparation efforts — and society's role in the process — in his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the Christian family in the modern world, Familiaris Consortio:

“More than ever necessary in our times is preparation of young people for marriage and family life. In some countries it is still the families themselves that, according to ancient customs, ensure the passing on to young people of the values concerning married and family life, and they do this through a gradual process of education or initiation. But the changes that have taken place within almost all modern societies demand that not only the family but also society and the Church should be involved in the effort of properly preparing young people for their future responsibilities” (66).

The recent action in Florida is part of a nationwide trend among state legislators and public policy groups to address the increasing divorce rates in the United States. According to statistics, the U.S. divorce rate continues to be the highest in the world, surpassing Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and Italy. Approximately 60% of new marriages in this country will end in separation or divorce. According to research conducted by researchers for USA Today, divorce contributes to as many as 75% of teen suicides and 80% of teen psychiatric admissions.

Those startling figures have led some researchers and family law attorneys to call for major changes in the nation's divorce laws.

John Crouch, a Virginia attorney, is executive director of Americans for Divorce Reform. Crouch says while laws that require marriage and divorce education are a positive step, the removal of no-fault divorce laws needs to be a priority.

“Marriage education is great, and it's a crucial part of the solution to divorce in this country,” said Crouch. “Still, the rules of marriage today favor those who want out of marriage. We believe in long-term change in the divorce laws.”

Efforts to remove no-fault divorce laws from state statutes have been tried recently in some states, including Iowa and Virginia, but all attempts to date have failed. Other legislative actions to reduce divorce rates, however, such as Florida's new law and Louisiana's Covenant Marriage law, have moved forward. Louisiana's 1997 law gives couples an option: They can either acquire a conventional marriage license and retain the freedom of no-fault divorce statutes, or they can opt for a covenant marriage license, which requires premarital counseling as well as the finding of fault in divorce proceedings.

In the past year, covenant marriage legislation has been introduced in at least 10 states. While the real-world effects of such laws remain unknown, observers expect the trend in favor of marriage-preparation laws to continue.

Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Indiana.