More binding marriage sought; Ohio proposal tries to put damper on many divorces

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — For now, it’s still “I do.”

But lovestruck Ohioans soon may have the option of saying, “I really, really do.”

That’s the hope of state Rep. Ron Young (R., Painesville), co-sponsor of a bill to create a more binding kind of marriage – a “covenant marriage” that would make it much more difficult for a couple to divorce.

The Ohio House held its first hearing yesterday on the measure supported by many Christian conservatives and opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Mr. Young said the new level of marriage is needed to strengthen the institution of the family, which he said has been ripped apart by rampant divorce.

“I feel very strongly that it’s simply wrong that marriage, the most important of contracts, is the easiest for us to enter and exit,” Mr. Young told the House Civil and Commercial Law committee. “We can’t build a society on shifting sands.”

The bill is modeled after a law that took effect Aug. 15 in Louisiana, the only state with such a statute.

A couple entering into a covenant marriage would be required to undergo premarital counseling emphasizing that the decision to marry is a lifelong commitment. And if trouble began to brew in their relationship, many of the grounds for divorce acceptable in a normal marriage would not apply.

For example, under law, a husband or wife wanting a divorce can receive one after a year’s separation. And if both want their marriage to end, they can apply for a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility and receive one within months.

If someone in a covenant marriage would want a divorce, however, and could not prove the spouse is a bigamist, an adulterer, or cruel and abusive, the couple would have to separate for two years while receiving mandatory marital counseling before being able to apply for a divorce.

The proposed legislation would remove incompatibility, habitual drunkenness, and “gross neglect of duty” as acceptable grounds for divorce in covenant marriages.

A covenant couple would not even be able to use a spouse’s imprisonment as a justification for divorce, even for murder convictions, unless the imprisoned party would be serving 10 or more years. Currently, imprisonment of any length can be grounds for a divorce.

Mr. Young said these rules are a reaction to the soaring divorce rate, which rose 35 per cent in Ohio between 1971 and 1990. Young people in divorced households are much more likely to be poor and commit crimes than those in two-parent families, he said.

“Families are where we raise the next generation of good, solid, healthy citizens,” Mr. Young said. “We can’t do that without good, solid, healthy families.”

Rep. Peter Jones (D., Shaker Heights), while saying he did not mind the idea of “super-sizing” marriages, questioned whether removing alcoholism or prison terms under 10 years from the list of acceptable grounds might be going too far.

Mr. Young said that habitual drunkenness or five-year prison terms are obstacles a dedicated couple can overcome. “I feel that those are the types of things we would want to work out in counseling,” he said.

Forcing couples to choose between the two levels of marriage might cause some disagreements between prospective mates, Mr. Young conceded. But any arguments the law might cause between boyfriends and girlfriends are healthier than those it might prevent between husbands and wives, he said.

“Many, because of the premarital counseling, might decide not to marry,” he said. “That would be a good thing.”

Several other representatives had reservations about the bill, even while saying they support the motivation behind it. Rep. David Hartley (D., Springfield) said limiting grounds for divorce might encourage divorce-seeking spouses to fabricate charges of child abuse or adultery against their husbands or wives. And Rep. Betty Sutton (D., Barberton) said the bill could trap wives in oppressive relationships.

“Unfortunately, bad marriages happen to people, people with the highest hopes at the start,” she said to Mr. Young. “This bill has the potential to lock people in. Even though your intentions are good, there will be some very bad results if this passes.”

Yvette Davis, a Columbus attorney and self-described evangelical Christian, was one of a number of citizens who testified in favor of the bill. She said the way her own marriage ended was far too easy, and that laws like Mr. Young’s would make it tougher.

“Dissolution was so easy, the process itself almost lacked trauma,” she said.

Rick Turner of Toledo testified about his own ongoing divorce, which he said might have been avoided if he had received premarital counseling that made him think about his concept of marriage.

“I think things might have been different had someone required me to sit down and talk to someone about marriage,” said Mr. Turner, who has been married for 12 years. “We need to raise the standard.”

The most emotional testimony yesterday was given by Jeanette Weigel, who is going through what she believes is a preventable divorce.

“I believe our marriage could have been saved if proper counseling would have been encouraged and enforced by the court,” she said haltingly, choking back tears.

She then introduced her 11-year-old son Chris, who, reading a handwritten statement from notebook paper, told the committee that “my future, and other kids’ future, is in your hands.”

If the bill passes, currently married couples would have a one-year window after the bill’s enactment to convert their own unions to covenants, and Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin (R., Aurora) said that might cause some intermarriage strife in otherwise healthy relationships.

“Can you imagine it might cause trouble if one spouse wanted to convert and the other didn’t?” she asked.

Mr. Young has 11 co-sponsors in the House, including four from the Toledo area: Jack Ford (D., Toledo), John Garcia (R., Toledo), Richard Hodges (R., Swanton), and Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon).

If Ohio proves to be anything like Louisiana, prospective mates might not be lining up to choose a covenant marriage, even if Mr. Young’s bill passes.

In the two months that they’ve been available in Louisiana, covenant marriages haven’t proven very popular. In Lafayette Parish [County], an urban center in south Louisiana, the clerk of court’s office has issued only six covenant marriage licenses, deputy clerk Jane Benoit said. During that same period, she estimates the parish has issued about 250 standard licenses.

And in neighboring rural Acadia Parish, not one of about 100 licenses issued in the last two months has been for a covenant marriage, deputy clerk Angie Reed said.

“If the marriage doesn’t work out, it just doesn’t work out,” said Pamela Kibodeaux of Rayne, La., who was married for the first time in August and chose not to have a covenant marriage. “If you’re not happy, it’s not up to the government to say when it’s over. It’s up to us.”