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April 7, 2001
Column #1023


     Sharon Samuel felt trapped.

     On Valentine's Day, 1998 she and her husband Guy, signed legal papers with 50 other married couples at First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, La., committing themselves to a more binding ''covenant marriage'' in which they waived their rights to a quick ''no-fault'' divorce, and agreed that if their marriage ever got in trouble, they would seek counseling to save it. 

     And instead of being able to have a divorce within six months of living separately, they had to remain apart 18 months. Further, the person wanting out would have to prove that their spouse had committed adultery, been physically abusive, habitually intemperate or convicted of a felony. 

     At the time she saw covenant marriage as ''an insurance policy,'' a backup plan if something were to go wrong in their 15 year marriage.

     By November, 1999, however, Sharon recalls feeling, ''Oh God, what have I done? I want this to be over, now!'' Their marriage had a high degree of conflict and both acknowledge they had poor communication skills. She filed for separation. He moved out, but not far away so that he could have the kids ten days a month. They both began seeing a counselor, as required by law. 

     Sharon wasn't optimistic. They had tried counseling before. But a new counselor helped her and Guy to become healthier individuals, to resolve their anger and heal their pain. Guy says he realized that the issue was ''self-will - me, my, I and not looking at the other person. We had arguments over what I wanted, rather than doing what God would want me to do.''

     They came to this realization one week after six months of separation. ''If we had a conventional marriage, we would have been divorced,'' he told me. They began dating and he moved back in four months later. Today both are very happy. 

     Sharon smiles, ''We are resolving conflict quicker and are putting God first in our family.  We are trying hard to follow God's plan. My husband is working hard at loving me sacrificially as Christ loved the church. I am working hard to love him sacrificially. We read Scripture together. We go to a couples Bible study and are doing Bible studies separately. I meet with ladies, and he with men.''

     The insurance plan worked. As Guy puts it, ''Covenant marriage protects the institution of marriage from hasty behavior. It protects people from themselves. I've talked to people who divorced, but now think it was not right.''

     I thought of their story when I heard that Arkansas passed a Covenant Marriage Law this past week. It was a top priority of Gov. Mike Huckabee who said in his State of the State speech, 
''While there's little government can do to save marriages, there are legitimate steps we can take.''

     ''We propose giving couples the freedom to choose a higher level of commitment by allowing them to enter into covenant marriages. Couples choosing covenant marriages will take extra steps of preparation for a lifelong commitment by attending pre-marriage counseling sessions...Additionally, these couples will agree that if their marriage should ever run into trouble, they'll seek marriage counseling before divorces will be granted.''

     My question to clergy and happily married couples across this nation is this: why aren't you asking your legislature to pass such a bill?

     My state of Maryland considered covenant marriage. I testified in favor of it, as did a representative of the Catholic bishops. But where were the Baptists, Methodists and Jews, the Nazarenes and Assemblies of God? Nowhere to be seen. The good people who say they believe in the Bible and ''God's first institution'' were AWOL. 

     Oddly, the bill's sponsor didn't even vote for his own bill. The Judiciary Committee, packed with lawyers who make plenty of easy money from no-fault divorces - happily let it die.

     That's happened in a score of states which have considered covenant marriage. 

     There's another scandal about how the law is operating in Louisiana. Only 4 percent of couples getting married there are signing up for fortified marriages. Do the other 96 percent want a marriage license written with disappearing ink?

     No. A Gallup Poll revealed that two-thirds did not know a covenant marriage law had been passed. Why not? Three-quarters got married in churches. Why didn't the pastors urge couples to request a covenant marriage?

     '''I hate divorce,' says the Lord God of Israel,'' according to Malachi.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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