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February 19, 2005
Column #1,225

                       
The Most Important Valentine Celebration
                          
     The most important Valentine's Day celebration in America this week was not a romantic dinner for two in every restaurant across the land.

     No, the more meaningful Valentine's Day event was an Arkansas Celebration of Marriage rally at which Governor Mike Huckabee took the former Janet McCain as his lawfully wedded wife, nearly 31 years after he originally did so - but with a far more binding "Covenant Marriage" certificate before 8,000 cheering clergy and couples from across his state.

     Arkansas is one of three states which have passed Covenant Marriage Laws, that are a partial reform of "No-Fault Divorce Laws" that allow one spouse to declare the marriage is over.

     In choosing a Covenant Marriage, husband and wife waive their right to unilateral divorce,  agree that they will seek counseling if the marriage becomes troubled, and that serious fault must be proven for the divorce to be granted - adultery, physical abuse of spouse or children, or conviction of a felony. Alternatively, they must  live separate and apart for two years. And they must attend premarital counseling explaining what a Covenant Marriage is, sign an affidavit that they understand its terms and have it notarized.

     This innovation was first passed in Louisiana, led by Rep. Tony Perkins, now President of the Family Research Council in Washington. I thought every pastor would urge couples he married to opt for this fortified marriage, truly a far deeper commitment, rather than a marriage certificate written with disappearing ink. I thought most brides-to-be would ask their intended to make a more binding commitment.

     I was wrong. 

     In Louisiana only 1-2 percent of licenses granted were for a Covenant Marriage. In Arkansas, after three and a half years, only 700 of more than 100,000 marriages were fortified marriages.

     Gov. Huckabee, who was not only a Baptist pastor but past President of the Arkansas Baptist Convention, is acutely aware of the fact that Arkansas has America's second highest divorce rate. In 2000 he declared a "marital emergency" in the state and became the first governor in the nation to call for "slashing the divorce rate in half."

     He acknowledged "There is a limit to what government can do. It can not change the hearts and minds of men and women. But it can encourage churches, synagogues, people of faith to unite together to help people prepare for marriage."

     He began pushing for and passed  the 2001 law that required premarital preparation for couples choosing a Covenant Marriage License rather than the standard license.

     "Nobody knew about the law, though he wrote a letter to every pastor in the state," Chris Pyle, an aide to the governor, told me. Therefore Huckabee decided last fall to create a major event on this Valentine's Day to promote Covenant Marriage, so that "no one in the state could be unaware of it, and that some would choose to be held to a higher standard."

     Last November he flew around the state, meeting with clergy at airports, asking them to urge engaged couples and even couples in existing marriages to choose the muscular Covenant Marriage, as he and his wife would do on Valentine's Day.  His appeal moved pastors to act.

     Rev. Ronnie Gilmore of Butterfield Assembly of God in Van Buren, told the governor, "I apologize to you that you are the one having to lead this battle. Leadership should have come from the churches." He bused 100 people to the rally and challenged every couple in his congregation to convert their marriage. He held classes and 25-30 couples did so.

     Southern Baptist Pastor Stephen Harrison, of the Family Church in Pine Bluff preached on the issue last weekend, got the paperwork and notaries to the church, prompting 40 couples to convert their marriages.  He promoted attendance at the Celebration of Marriage rally and announced that "We will only do Covenant Marriages in the future. We believe in them if couples are looking for a really committed relationship." 

     Scores of pastors are taking that stand, inspired by Huckabee.

     Ironically, Pat O'Brien, the local county clerk who publicly certified Gov. Huckabee's Covenant Marriage, is a Democrat who worked for his gubernatorial opponent. "I never voted for Mike Huckabee, but he has shown great leadership on this issue. In the first three and a half years, there were only 220 Covenant Marriage Licenses issued in our county, but in the last 60 days, there have been 380!" he said admiringly.

     "Less divorce means less child custody cases, less child support battles and more stable homes."

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