April 24, 2001 | Commentary on Family and Marriage
Tony Perkins just got tired of being an "aginner."
That's a Southern term for people who seem to be "agin"-or against-everything. And in the course of promoting a pro-family agenda, Perkins, a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, found himself against almost everything.
Rampant gambling? Against that. Easy, no-fault divorces? Against that, too. The nation's loosest liquor laws? Against them as well.
So, in 1997, Perkins began casting about for something he could be for. Eventually, he came across a bill that had failed six years earlier in the Florida Legislature. Introduced by Daniel Webster-then speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and now a state senator-it called for the establishment of what now are known as "covenant marriages."
Perkins felt he had found something and drafted his own version. It stipulated that couples who choose covenant marriages agree to undergo pre-marital counseling and to seek further counseling if their marriages hit a rocky patch. Only adultery, abandonment, physical or sexual abuse, or conviction of a felony could serve as grounds for divorce. Instead of the usual six months to get divorced, "covenant" couples would have to wait two years.
When the bill became law, it captured national attention as a typically quirky Louisiana law. (Louisiana, incidentally, is known for quirky laws. It's the only state with "parishes" instead of counties, the only state governed by the Napoleonic Code rather than English common law-heck, the only state with drive-through daiquiri stands.)
But this time, it was out front on an issue. Quirky or not, Perkins' bill had established marital breakdown as a legitimate government concern. Considering that the latest government figures show a record 1.3 million U.S. babies were born out of wedlock in 1999, that concern ought to be more widespread.
It's not just a matter for your local pulpit. More and more social science research shows that children who grow up in intact, two-parent households are far less likely to be physically abused. As they mature, they tend to earn more, learn more, avoid substance abuse, go to prison less and cause fewer social problems.
Within a year of Perkins' success, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating asked the economics departments at two of his state's top universities to write a report on what was holding his state back economically. The summary covered the usual suspects-excessive regulation, educational shortcomings, etc. But it revealed something else: Oklahoma's high rate of divorce and out-of-wedlock births not only took huge bites out of the state budget, they were a major drag on the state economy as well.
Keating responded by calling a summit to hatch ideas to promote marriage. Out of the summit came proposals to launch ad campaigns encouraging sound decision-making before marriage and highlighting the negative effects of divorce. Oklahoma also vowed to use excess welfare funds to support marriage and set goals for reducing divorce rates.
Arkansas, Arizona and Iowa followed with marriage summits of their own. Arizona has adopted its own covenant marriage law, and a similar measure is before the Arkansas Legislature. Lawmakers in several other states are writing similar laws.
The tide is turning in favor of marriage for a variety of reasons-some economic, some social, some religious. Perkins summed them up well after his bill passed:
"We need to recognize and support positive behavior," he said. "We've been going against the flow a long time. We've literally had decades of public policy going in other directions, and we haven't had a lot of success. It's time to reverse the trend."
Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.
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