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October 11, 2006
Column # 1,311
Advance for October 14
"Marriage and the Law"
by Mike McManus

An important new study, "Marriage and the Law," argues that present legal trends are weakening men's commitment to family life, saddling women with the burden of parenting alone and diminishing the ties of children to parents, especially their fathers.

The law should protect children by "increasing the likelihood that children will be raised by their mother and father in lasting, loving family unions," asserts the study by a group of legal and family scholars gathered by the Institute for American Values.

Instead, legal trends are moving in the opposite direction.  Rather than focus on the needs of children, many courts are granting rights to adults to create diverse family forms such as cohabitation and same-sex marriages that are harmful to children.

The report affirmed some "great truths about marriage and the law."

1. "Marriage and family law is fundamentally oriented toward creating and protecting the next generation."  While marriage also has a goal to meet adult needs for love and intimacy, its central role is to create children connected to and loved by their mother and father.

2. "Marriage is an irreplaceable social good" which prevents poverty, promotes the well-being of children and the equal dignity of men and women.

3.  "High rates of divorce, unmarried childbearing, as well as violent or high conflict marriages, hurt children."

4.  "A major goal of marriage and family law is...to strengthen marriage so that more children are raised by their own married mother and father."

There is no question that when marriages fail or fail to take place, everyone suffers - children, men and women. Children raised outside of intact marriages are more likely to be poor, suffer from mental and physical illness, teen suicide and are more apt to be delinquent, to drop out of school and be promiscuous, leading to unwed parenthood.

A married man lives a decade longer than a single or divorced man and single women live shorter lives. They are much poorer because marriage is a wealth-building institution.

How can the law change to be more supportive of marriage?

The report recommends "a substantial waiting period for unilateral divorce," such as a one or two years before a spouse can obtain a no-fault divorce without mutual consent.  Louisiana became the first state to take this step, requiring a year of separation if the couple had children. It was the first reform of no-fault divorce in two generations.

Astonishingly, nine states permit a divorce to be granted in an average of 33 days and have the highest divorce rates in America - Nevada, Arkansas, Wyoming, Idaho, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, and Alaska.  Religious and legal leaders in those states should fight for reform.

The seven states requiring a separation averaging 8.5 months have the lowest divorce rates: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New Jersey, Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota.

The report made a creative suggestion that couples entering a remarriage with stepchildren be required to attend a workshop on how to make such marriages work, since they fail in 70 percent of cases. Such a reform is unlikely.  However, churches can create "Stepfamily Support Groups" that save four of five stepfamilies. For information call 301 469-5873.

The study proposed that a marriage message be added to teen pregnancy prevention programs, which are devoid of such content. Teens should be encouraged to be adults, educated and married before getting pregnant.

Unfortunately, however, the study did not call for an overhaul of no-fault divorce. Most divorces are filed by one person who alleges incompatibility, while the other spouse wants to save the marriage. Sadly, divorce is always granted.

This column has long advocated that in cases involving children, when adultery or abuse is not alleged, divorce should only be granted if there is "mutual consent" by husband and wife.  What was entered into by two people, should not be ended, unless both people agree.

That would reduce the divorce rate substantially, and result in fairer divorces.

The report also failed to support another needed reform - joint custody of children or shared parenting.  There is conclusive evidence that shared parenting results in greater father involvement, more financial support, and happier children. States with more joint support also have lower divorce rates.

Why?  If a spouse knows the other parent must be involved in raising children, fewer will  divorce.  It is easier to make a marriage work, than a divorce.

None of these legal reforms will be implemented, however, unless religious leaders become involved.  The best primer for doing so is this report. Order it for $5 from AmericanValues.org.
 
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