January 24, 2004
Competing for the
Three different groups competed behind the scenes to persuade President Bush
to take different stands on marriage in his State of the Union. Ironically,
none came away satisfied but all were pleased to some degree.
Appetites were whetted by a page one Jan. 14 New York Times story that
began: "Administration officials say they are planning an extensive
election-year initiative to promote marriage, especially among low-income
couples, and they are weighing whether President Bush should promote the
plan next week in his State of the Union address.
"For months, administration officials have worked with conservative groups
on the proposal, which would provide at least $1.5 billion for training to
help couples develop interpersonal skills that sustain `healthy marriages.'"
A network of marriage educators, scholars, activists and leaders at the
Department of Health and Human Services knew instantly that what was
described was their favorite Bush proposal, a "Healthy Marriage Initiative."
It is a $300 million a year plan tucked into Welfare Reform that would pay
for "public advertising campaigns on the value of marriage; education in
high schools" on relationship skills; marriage education and skill training
as conflict resolution and financial management "for non-married pregnant
women and non-married expectant fathers;" pre-marital education and marriage
skills training for engaged couples; marriage enrichment for already married
couples; divorce reduction programs and "marriage mentoring programs which
used married couples as role models."
However, contrary to what the Times believed, this is old news. The
President first proposed this law two years ago. The House and the Senate
Finance Committee passed the bill. However, it is stalled. Senate Democrats
are resisting giving Bush "another victory" in an election year. Activists
hoped Bush would argue for its passage.
Another cluster of conservative Christians such as Concerned Women for
America and Family Research Council (FRC), hoped the President would
clearly support a proposed Constitutional Amendment that would limit
marriage to "the union of a man and a woman," prohibiting same-sex marriage
such as that ordered in November by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
of the state's Legislature within 180 days.
FRC President Tony Perkins argues that if Massachusetts begins issuing same
sex "marriage" licenses in May, "they will rapidly spread around the
country, as homosexuals travel to Massachusetts to marry and then return to
their home states and challenge state laws against" gay marriage. Recent
U.S. Supreme Court cases suggest it would overturn those laws.
Just before he delivered the State of the Union, leaders of 100 million
evangelicals and Catholics wrote the President in support of a third idea.
"We call on you to join us in setting an important national goal - to slash
America's divorce rate in half over the next decade," wrote Ted Haggard,
President of the National Association of Evangelicals and Richard Land,
President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern
They applauded his "Healthy Marriage Initiative," and argued, "We believe
that the disintegration of marriage is the central domestic problem of our
time. Half of new marriages are failing and marriage rates have plunged."
They noted "Catholics and Protestants in 183 cities created Community
Marriage Policies with the conscious goal of pushing down divorce rates"
with such initiatives as thorough marriage preparation of 4-6 months that
includes taking a premarital inventory and discussing issues it raises with
trained mentor couples, enriching existing marriages with an annual retreat
and training couples whose own marriages had once nearly failed to come
alongside those in current crisis.
Haggard and Land cited an independent study providing evidence that divorce
rates are declining in many cities. (Disclosure: I am president of Marriage
Savers that helped create this initiative.)
Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, past president of Catholic bishops,
sent a separate letter to Bush supporting the divorce reduction goal.
In his State of the Union, Bush did back a 1996 federal law defining
marriage as "the union of a man and a woman," noting that "activist judges
have begun redefining marriage by court order....If judges insist on forcing
their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative...would be the
Perkins was disappointed Bush did not explicitly endorse the amendment and
is awaiting the Massachusetts outcome. Nor did the President mention the
Healthy Marriage Initiative or slashing divorce rates. But all three groups
were pleased that a President declared, "Our nation must defend the sanctity
And for the first time, Catholic and evangelical leaders set a goal to slash
divorce rates in half by 2014.