National Post

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December 30, 2000

'God hates divorce'

Covenant marriage allows couples to safeguard their commitment

Siobhan Roberts
National Post


Photo by Bill Feig, National Post
Guy and Sharon Samuel embrace in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, La., where they were married two years ago in a covenant-style wedding. Sharon credits this type of wedding and its more restrictive rules on divorce with saving their marriage.

Bill Feig, National Post
THE SAMUELS: happy together and feeling blessed that their covenant marriage delayed their divorce plans.

BATON ROUGE, La. - Not two years after Sharon Samuel's wedding on Valentine's Day, 1998 -- when she bound herself to her husband in a covenant marriage -- she was cursing herself and longing for the fast and painless escape of a no-fault divorce.

A covenant marriage is what the Louisiana state Senate chose to call its alternative to traditional marriage, with the word "covenant" suggesting a commitment more unbreakable than the usual marital contract and making it as difficult as possible to get divorced.

"I was like, 'Oh, God, what have I done?' " Mrs. Samuel recalls. " 'I want this to be over, now.' "

The Samuels got married in the gymnasium of the First Presbyterian Church, in Baton Rouge. It was a mass marriage, with some 50 couples saying "I do" under the covenant's rules: They would undergo mandatory counselling if they wanted out of the marriage (this after obligatory counselling before getting into the marriage); and they would wait out a one-year separation before filing for divorce. Even then, the only way to end the marriage would be for the couple to prove who was at fault for the marital breakdown, based on a constraining list of acceptable grounds.

The Covenant Marriage Bill was introduced in March, 1997, by Louisiana State Representative Tony Perkins, a Republican and a graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. In its original form, the bill allowed for divorce on only two grounds, adultery and abandonment -- both derived from the Bible. There were a number of amendments as the bill made its way through the legislative process, which, despite Senator Perkins' objections, expanded the acceptable grounds for divorce. In its present incarnation, a covenant marriage may be dissolved if a spouse is convicted of a felony or sentenced to prison or death; if a spouse is physically or sexually abusive; or if a spouse is habitually intemperate. The bill passed with an overwhelming majority in both legislative houses of Louisiana in June, 1997.

When the Samuels got their covenant marriage in 1998, it was an upgrade, of sorts. This wasn't the first time they had been married to each other. They had first wed in 1983 under the usual marriage contract. And they considered renewing their vows with the covenant marriage an insurance policy -- to safeguard their commitment to what had at times been a rocky relationship.

"The covenant marriage was just one more tool for us to make sure that we were keeping our marriage in God's will," Mrs. Samuel explains. "We knew that divorce is not God's plan for marriage. God hates divorce."

Two years later, however, the couple were in conflict once again. They separated and Mrs. Samuel was furious with regret about her covenant marriage.

"I was really angry," she says. "I wasn't angry at God. I was angry with myself for getting into the covenant."

Russ Stevenson was the minister at First Presbyterian who remarried the Samuels in the Valentine's Day ceremony. He estimates he has presided over nearly 100 covenant marriages since the law came into effect.

"I usually try to talk them into it," Reverend Stevenson says, seated in his parish study, which is furnished, much like a psychologist's office, with a couch. He is proudest of the lawyer he convinced to enter a covenant marriage -- a lawyer who had lobbied the legislature on behalf of a good majority of the divorce lawyers in Louisiana that opposed the Covenant Marriage Bill.

Some opposition to the bill also came from the Roman Catholic Church, which has under its denomination roughly 80% of the population in southern Louisiana (30% in the born-again Christian Bible Belt to the north) -- and is both a moral and a political force to be reckoned with.

The Roman Catholic bishops balked at the law because its pre-marital counselling included discussion about the logistics of divorce.

"The Catholic Church does not admit any marriage can end in divorce," said Father Paul Counce, vice-chancellor of the diocese of Baton Rouge, who sat on the committee that studied the bill and advised the bishops whether or not to give their support. "The bishops refused to support it because they did not want the Catholic clergy to be advising couples that their marriage could end civilly by divorce. It was a theological issue," he said.

The bishops gave their support when the subject of divorce was taken out of the pre-marital counselling. Instead, the revised law instructs couples to obtain a pamphlet provided by the state attorney-general's office and sign an affidavit stating they have read it.

There was also some concern that the covenant marriage contract -- dubbed the "suped-up" version of marriage -- would create a two-tier system, devaluing the standard contract, and that the Church would implicitly be condoning divorce by continuing to sanction the inferior standard marriage.

"Theologically, [the committee] concluded that, yes, there was a distinction, but that there was already a two-tier distinction and that this just made it three tier," said Father Counce. "The highest form of marriage is an indissoluble bond, which covenant marriage is not. Covenant marriage is divorceable. Neither of the civil marriages comes close to our understanding of marriage, which is even higher and more profound."

The most vociferous opponents to the bill -- never assuaged -- were civil libertarians who argued it violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

"They were attempting to have the state enforce their particular religious doctrines. That violates the First Amendment," says Joe Cook, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, which raise a red card against the legislation in both the House and the Senate. The First Amendment protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference.

Mr. Cook noted at the time of the bill's passing that the Louisiana state Governor, Mike Foster, who signed the bill into law in July, 1997, had been elected with the de facto endorsement of the Christian Coalition, a conservative religious organization that, according to its mission statement, seeks "to promote Christian values in government."

By Mr. Stevenson's definition, the name of the bill does itself imply religious origins. "A covenant is a Biblical promise," he says. "The word 'covenant' has religious overtones."

Nevertheless, the bill's creators and advocates argue that the motivation was less religious than simply a desire to remedy a rash of societal ills -- child poverty, delinquency, criminality, suicide, high school dropouts -- which they attribute to the breakdown of the family.

"Divorce plays out in all kinds of social pathologies," says Katherine Spaht, a law professor at Louisiana State University who drafted the legislation. "It comes from the suffering that children of divorce endure, the wounds that are deep."

"Over two-thirds of divorces are low conflict," she continues. "Those are the divorces that should be made more difficult. The biggest myth is that if [parents aren't] happy, then the children aren't happy. But the children don't care. They want you home, cooking their meals, tucking them in at night, providing for them. And in that case, I say, 'You had the children. They are your first obligation.' "

Professor Spaht would take the concept of covenant marriage one step further to enable couples to choose a marriage that is totally inescapable -- a civil version of the Roman Catholic ideal of indissoluble marriage. She cites an article in the February, 1995, issue of First Things, a journal of religion and public life.

The article was written by Christopher Wolfe, a professor of political science at Marquette University, Wis.. In it, Dr. Wolfe argues if liberal societies were consistent in allowing individuals complete choice in how they make their commitments, the law would in fact permit not only the option of a covenant marriage but also the option of having a permanently irreversible and inextricable marriage.

"Why would anybody want their marriage to be legally indissoluble?" he asks. "The argument might be that you think a permanent marriage is really good, and yet you recognize at the same time that we are all subject to strong temptations to bail out when the going gets tough," says Dr. Wolfe. "The analogy I used was a story from the Odyssey, by Homer."

The moral of the story: Just because you're on a diet doesn't mean you can't look at the menu dictum, but with a classical, literary sensibility.

"There's an island called the Island of the Sirens, and the sirens sing incredibly beautiful music," he recounts. "It is so beautiful that people who hear it head straight for the island and they crash up on the rocks and get killed. Odysseus knows all about the dangers, but still he wants to hear the music. So what he does is he plugs the ears of all his men with wax. He doesn't have wax in his ears, but he has his men tie him to the mast. So they sail by the island. And Odysseus goes ape. The music is so beautiful he wants to get at it, but he's tied there to the mast. It was key that he was tied to the mast. He made sure that he bound himself in such a way that he wouldn't change his mind and countermand his earlier order. In a way, it's a bit like -- for those of us who think that indissoluble marriage is a good thing -- binding ourselves ahead of time in a way that makes marriage last.

"If divorce is readily available," Dr. Wolfe concludes, "when people have difficulties, they won't have the need to work through them and will end the marriage prematurely."

That might have been the case with the Samuels if they hadn't fortified their vows with a covenant marriage.

"She wanted out of that marriage," says Mr. Stevenson, who shepherded the couple through the divorce-avoidance counselling. "She was saying she wished they hadn't done [the covenant marriage]. She was sorry that she was going to have to wait so long before she would be rid of Guy."

Just past the six-month mark, however, when a traditional no-fault marriage contract would have allowed for divorce, the Samuels' relationship quagmire finally gave way to more solid ground.

"We both had, I guess, what you'd call a spiritual awakening, where God worked on both of our lives and was able to help us resolve our anger and our conflict and make progress in our relationship," Mrs. Samuel says. "Had we stayed with the state law, by that point we would have been divorced."

By Labour Day, 2000, nine months after they separated, Guy Samuel had returned to the family home. Despite their past difficulties, the Samuels are confident their marriage will last, and happy they avoided becoming the first covenant marriage to end in divorce.

As yet, there have been no covenant marriage divorces, though a few are pending, according to Steven Nock, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, who is compiling statistics on Louisiana's covenant marriage. Dr. Nock's study, titled Marriage Matters, tracks 700 recently married couples in Louisiana -- half by covenant and half traditional. Findings are preliminary but, according to Dr. Nock, a distinct profile is emerging of the typical covenant couple.

"Woman are the leading force in a decision to get a covenant marriage," he said. "There is always a leader and a follower in this process. What we are finding is, in the cases of couples who elect covenant marriages, the woman is more often the leader. And with the couples who elect standard marriages, not surprisingly, [the leader] is usually the man."

Covenant couples are also more likely than traditional couples to agree they should remain married -- even if they do not love one another.

"For standard couples, the major factor that attracted them to their partner and to marriage was the fact that they were in love with each other," Dr. Nock says. "Covenant couples offer a lot more explanation as to why they got married: compatibility, relatives, sharing common values, the likelihood of being able to raise children successfully -- the mundane and prosaic aspects of life. But the standard couples," he says, "like most couples when they get married, they're in love, and that's about the beginning and the end of it."

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