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Putting asunder

Divorce | Gay-marriage initiatives aren't the only threat to preserving marriage. Chronic marriage dissolution plagues both society and the church, and government officials are trying to find ways to help

Issue: "Bird flu," June 10, 2006

When disbarred attorney Ralph Woods appeared in a North Carolina courtroom for his arraignment on fraud charges, U.S. Magistrate Judge Carl Horn asked Mr. Woods a question he didn't expect: Do you live alone? When Mr. Woods replied that he lived with a woman to whom he wasn't married, Judge Horn issued an order he didn't expect: If Mr. Woods wanted to post bond, he'd have to move out or get married.

Mr. Woods' fraud charges had nothing to do with his love life, but his extramarital living arrangements had everything to do with a North Carolina law that prohibits unmarried couples from living together. It's a 200-year-old law rarely enforced in other courtrooms, but Judge Horn takes it seriously. He has routinely imposed the condition on defendants whom he also requires to work and support their children. Soon after his hearing, Mr. Woods was a married man.

Judge Horn's enforcement of the cohabitation ban has drawn scorn from critics who call the law antiquated and discriminatory. (Only seven other states have laws banning cohabitation of unmarried couples.) North Carolina's state chapter of the ACLU has filed suit to have the ban declared unconstitutional. But Judge Horn is unapologetic: "These conditions are all in their [the defendants'] best interest," he told the Charlotte Observer. "My overall goal is to get them to live more disciplined, responsible lives."

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Discipline and responsibility aren't buzzwords in the public marriage debate these days. Instead, the notion of gay marriage dominates public discourse as homosexuals press for civil recognition that threatens to inflict far-reaching consequences (see p. 31).

But as the gay-marriage crisis looms large, another massive marriage crisis churns beneath the surface and behind church doors. Tens of thousands of men and women will marry in the United States in June, the most popular month for weddings. The same month, tens of thousands of couples will also divorce. That trend will repeat itself for the rest of the year.

During a 10-month period in 2005, an estimated 1.8 million couples got married in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. During the same period, nearly 800,000 couples divorced. A total of more than 56.4 million married couples live together in the United States, according to the 2000 Census (compared with 595,000 homosexual couples). As many as 24 million of those married couples could end up divorced if the nation's divorce rate continues to hover between 35 percent and 45 percent.

Pollster George Barna released a study in 2004 putting the soaring divorce rate in context for Christians. The findings were disturbing: Born-again Christians are as likely to get divorced as non-Christians. Mr. Barna found the same divorce rate in both groups: 35 percent. Nearly one quarter of the Christians surveyed had been divorced two or more times. The study found that Christians are more likely to characterize divorce as a sin, but even those figures weren't encouraging: Only 25 percent of Christians in the survey said divorce without adultery is sinful.

That evangelical phenomenon is "an incredible indictment" and "completely inexcusable," according to Andreas Köstenberger, professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of God, Marriage, and Family. Mr. Köstenberger told WORLD that while it's important for Christians to oppose gay marriage "we also shouldn't lose track of the fact that so many of our Christian marriages are ending in divorce. . . . It certainly renders us vulnerable in the battle for the definition of marriage."

Mr. Köstenberger says the problems of gay marriage and divorce both grow from the same dark root: sin and a low view of marriage. The church's divorce rate equals that of the secular world, he adds, because the church has adopted a secular mindset full of "superficial remedies that don't deal with the deeper problems."

For example, most of the marriage resources in Christian bookstores are focused on "how-to lists and techniques.

. . . They're really indistinct from the secular world," says Mr. Köstenberger. Christians need a deeper understanding of biblical marriage and how it fits into the broader context of the Bible, he says, not just tips on better communication: "Liberalism is pervasive and it promotes the notion that we ought to make whatever choices are best for us as opposed to the biblical idea of sacrificial love."

Divorce and homosexuality aren't the only problems springing from a low view of marriage: By 12th grade, more than 60 percent of teenagers have had sex at least once, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Eighty-four out of every 1,000 girls ages 15-19 will become pregnant. The CDC estimates that 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases occur each year. Almost half the cases occur in people ages 15-24.

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