The social fallout from America's high divorce rate has prompted politicians and social theorists to join religious groups in rethinking no-fault divorce and other legal disincentives for enduring marriages. In the May-June issue of the bi-monthly Policy Review Joe Loconte evaluates Louisiana's recent switch to a two-tier system of standard and “covenant” marriage.
Loconte emphasizes that the revolutionary character of Louisiana's Covenant Marriage Act lies in “raising both the entrance and exit requirements for marriage … On the front end, it requires premarital counseling. On the back end, it limits the legal grounds for divorce to adultery, felony conviction, abandonment, physical or sexual abuse, or separation for at least two years. It also requires that struggling couples get counseling before they may call it quits.”
Noting that only a small number of brides and grooms have thus far chosen covenant marriage, Loconte sees the most important result of the law in its educational effect. In recent decades the law has “taught” American couples and their children that marriage is a private arrangement designed to increase the happiness of two people, and easily dissolved if either partner chooses. Loconte quotes policy adviser and social analyst William Galston that “It's amazing how many people who believe (rightly) that civil rights laws helped change racial attitudes deny that any such consequences can flow from changes in the laws of marriage and divorce,” and argues that “the Louisiana statute already offers both liberals and conservatives an objective lesson that law can be used to instigate, but not compel, traditional virtue.”
Reactions from conservative Protestant groups seeking to reduce the toll from broken marriages have been largely enthusiastic (“the Louisiana Baptist Convention praised the new policy as an attempt ‘to move the legal standards for marriage and divorce closer to the standards of the Word of God’”).
The law has ‘taught’American couples and their children that marriage is… easily dissolved if either partner chooses.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, while receptive to the law's intent, has been leery of committing its Catholic couples to a premarital process that requires counseling about the legal grounds for divorce of covenant marriages: “Any discussion of divorce before marriage is anathema to Catholic doctrine and would ‘confuse or obscure’ Church teaching.” Proposed amendments to the law may solve this problem.
Though Louisiana's law does not spell out or require religious participation in the covenant marriage option, Loconte argues that the law needs the Churches as much as the Churches need the law to encourage stable marriages. Many Protestant pastors are “increasingly ready to declare their congregations ‘no-fault-free’ zones: Many are refusing to marry couples who fail to choose the covenant contract,” and Church groups in the 20-plus states now considering similar laws also welcome the option.
America's recent experiment with no-fault divorce, writes Loconte, has led to broken lives through a combination of misguided compassion and, in author Maggie Gallagher's words, the redefinition “of marriage as a temporary bond sustained by mutual emotion alone.” Loconte comments, “The problem with this story is that it usually contains an unhappy ending: More than half of all new marriages in the United States will end in divorce or permanent separation, and most will involve minor children.” Loconte finds hope in Louisiana's abandonment of the false notion that the law can pretend neutrality about the survival of America's marriages. “Or to cite an old Chinese proverb: He who aims at nothing hits it.”
Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.