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January 24, 2004
Column #1,169

Competing for the President's Ear

     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 Baptist Convention.

     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 constitutional process."

     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 of marriage."

     And for the first time, Catholic and evangelical leaders set a goal to slash divorce rates in half by 2014.

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