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"I really, really do"

National | Louisiana law makes marriage and divorce more difficult

Issue: "The Man Behind the Duck," July 26, 1997

Baton Rouge, La.

When Pam LeBlanc weds Mark MacDonald on October 11, she'll carry a heart-shaped bouquet of blush-colored roses. She'll wear an off-white dress, floor-length, a simple, elegant off-the-shoulder design. She'll wear a strand of pearls.

And she'll be given away by both her father and her 5-year-old son.

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Her first marriage ended in divorce; this time, she says, the marriage is for life. The 26-year-old native of Louisiana's capital city will have a strengthened marriage-licensing law to back her up; her wedding will be one of the first to be performed under Louisiana's new "covenant marriage" law. The Louisiana legislature passed the measure overwhelmingly last month, and Republican Gov. Mike Foster has promised to sign the bill. It's slated to go into effect on August 15.

Couples will then have a choice: They can either get a conventional marriage license, and retain the freedom of the no-fault divorce statutes, or they can opt for a covenant marriage license, which mandates premarital counseling and requires finding of fault in order for a divorce to be granted.

"It was easy to get married and easy to get divorced," says Ms. LeBlanc, an office worker for a Baton Rouge industrial equipment firm. "I was young; I guess I really didn't know what I was getting into. If this law had been in place then, it's not that I wouldn't have gotten divorced, it's that I wouldn't have gotten married in the first place."

If that's the result, says the bill's author, Republican state Rep. Tony Perkins, that's fine. "When couples go get their licenses, they're going to be facing a choice," says Mr. Perkins, a solid-jawed former television anchorman. "That decision is going to make them think about what marriage means. If they disagree about it, they might not get married. But that's not a bad thing. It's one less potential divorce."

The covenant marriage contract, which couples sign, says they've chosen their "mate for life wisely." Prior to signing, they've undergone premarital counseling. They agree, in the contract, to seek counseling again if their marriage appears in trouble.

In order to obtain a divorce, one partner has to prove the other committed adultery, is a convict facing the death penalty (or imprisonment at hard labor), physically or sexually abused the spouse or a child, or abandoned the home for a year.

A divorce could also be granted if the couple was legally separated for a year. Otherwise, to obtain a divorce, couples must live apart for three years and prove to a judge that they have sought counseling.

No-fault divorce laws became common in the 1970s, when states (led by California) sought to make divorce less acrimonious. Divorce rates jumped 34 percent between 1970 and 1990; currently, half of all marriages end in divorce. And although divorce rates have remained level in recent years, family policy groups point out that it's only because the number of marriages has dropped off.

Women and children have suffered most from the surge in divorce, and that fact led Louisiana State University Law School professor Katherine Spaht to rethink her advocacy of no-fault laws. She helped bring the provisions to Louisiana in the early 1970s, but no longer supports them. In fact, she helped Mr. Perkins craft the covenant marriage bill. "Katherine Spaht sees the damage caused by no-fault laws, she sees they're wrong," the state representative says. "Now she's dedicated herself to undoing them."

Her involvement has helped deflect some of the anticipated criticism-that this is an attempt by the Christian Right to re-shackle American Womanhood. The American Bar Association even went as far as offering lukewarm encouragement. "It's a very innovating way to approach the subject," commented Ira Lurvey, a Los Angeles attorney who chairs the ABA's family law division.

Still, the ACLU complained loudly, claiming that covenant marriage licenses would be related to "biblical restrictions" on divorce (while failing to note that marriage itself is based on biblical restrictions on sin). Louisiana ACLU head Joe Cook said life in a covenant marriage "may turn out to be a horror story ... if you have an abusive situation or molestation that might occur. It's a step back in time in terms of making it difficult for someone-especially women-to get out of a bad situation."

Rep. Perkins expects the public-especially twenty-somethings anticipating marriage-to be more receptive to the idea. "This gives an extra comfort level to a generation of children who grew up under no-fault divorce laws," he says. "These kids know what divorce can do to a family. They've lived it."

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