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When Louisiana became the first state to enact covenant marriage, supporters expected it to sweep the country and lower the divorce rate in America. What happened?

“A genuine covenant marriage is always a threesome: God, husband, and wife.” — Dr. Fred Lowery, author of Covenant Marriage

In its 1997 session, the Louisiana Legislature passed several important bills. It legalized slot machines at state racetracks, declared shooting a carjacker to be justifiable homicide, and redefined marriage.

House Bill 756, the nation’s first covenant marriage law, began as an attempt to stem divorce rates. Those who desire a covenant marriage need only tick a box on the one-page state marriage application and execute a declaration of intent, including a statement that “we understand that a Covenant Marriage is for life.” Premarital counseling is required. Ending a marriage is still possible, though no-fault divorce is eliminated, and grounds for divorce are limited. They include physical or sexual abuse (of either a spouse or child), infidelity, a felony conviction or abandonment.

Covenant marriage was hailed by supporters as an attempt to strengthen the family and protect children. Critics called it a potentially dangerous injection of religious belief into a civil commitment and worried that it might trap women in loveless or abusive marriages. Two months after its passage, then-Rep. Tony Perkins, R-Baker, predicted, “I think in about a year a majority of couples will make it [covenancy] part of their marriage plans.”

Perkins was wrong. In its first year, only 1 percent of Louisiana marriages were covenants. Today, nearly 12 years later, the total has edged closer to 2 percent. Nor has covenant marriage reduced general divorce rates. In 1997, when covenant marriage became law, 13,836 divorces were granted in Louisiana. In 2003 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), the divorce total was 15,230.

In Lafayette Parish, since its inception, 373 couples have chosen a covenant marriage, and an additional 24 couples have had their marriage converted to a covenant. In that time, 21,043 traditional marriage licenses have been issued in the parish. Of all the licenses issued in Lafayette Parish since 1997, only 1.9 percent of all marriages are covenants — tracking closely with statewide figures.

“It has been a complete waste of taxpayers’ money and does nothing to prevent people from getting a divorce,” says Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret. “The fact that less than 2 percent of the people have chosen to get married under that shows what a failure it’s been.”

Figures are similar in Arizona and Arkansas, the only two other states that have adopted the practice. More than 20 other statehouses have introduced covenant marriage into committee, only to have the bills wither and fail.

“The pioneers of covenant marriage thought their followers would flock to it,” wrote William Saletan in The Washington Post in 2006. “They were wrong.”

If covenant marriage had a mother in Louisiana, it was Katherine S. Spaht, then a professor at LSU’s School of Law. A longtime advocate for children and a committed Christian, Spaht worked throughout her adult life to “protect children of all ages from suffering from their parents’ actions,” she says. The more she learned about the effects of divorce, particularly no-fault divorce, the more alarmed she became.

“The suffering was abundantly clear,” she recalls. “I reached that conclusion in the fall of 1995, and I promised God I was going to do something about it.”

The next year, Spaht was introduced to Perkins, then a freshman state senator and family-values advocate. Today Perkins is the head of the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that “champions marriage and family as the foundation of civilization, the seedbed of virtue, and the wellspring of society,” and has called for the abolition of no-fault divorce nationwide.

Perkins and Spaht worked on a covenant marriage bill, which went through several drafts. “Ours is more liberal than the one we introduced, but you have to compromise in the political process,” Spaht says. (One draft had eliminated the no-fault divorce option for any couple with a child under 22 years of age.) “I probably worked as hard on that piece of legislation as any I passed,” Perkins says.

When it was introduced into the Louisiana Legislature, the only formal objection came from representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued the law might constitute “emotional blackmail.” Later, both The Times-Picayune and The Advocate editorialized against it. Nevertheless, after several revisions were made to the bill (including the addition of physical and sexual abuse as grounds for immediate divorce), covenant marriage passed in both houses in the last two hours of the season’s legislative session, and the bill was signed in June 1997 by Gov. Mike Foster.

America’s first covenant marriage law made national news — front-page stories in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and Perkins appeared on Good Morning America to discuss it. Family-values conservatives were thrilled. “Louisiana has elected to confer special benefits on covenant marriages, such as a 10 percent cut in auto insurance rates,” wrote Pat Buchanan that month (oddly, as the law made no mention of insurance rates). “It is no accident that this change in thinking is taking place in a part of America undergoing a religious revival,” he concluded.

But it seemed no one told Louisianans about this revival in their midst. On its first day — Aug. 15, 1997 — not a single couple in Orleans, St. Bernard, St. Tammany or Jefferson parishes applied for a covenant marriage license. The first New Orleans couple to take the plunge did so four days later on their eighth anniversary, “upgrading” their marriage at the Jefferson Parish courthouse while their car was getting new tires installed at a nearby shop.

Among the early adopters were the state’s secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals, a young Catholic convert named Bobby Jindal whose marriage at Baton Rouge’s St. Joseph Cathedral in the summer of 1997 was a covenant. Some churches held mass covenant weddings as a form of witnessing; in June 1998, 29 couples renewed their vows at a mass covenant marriage in Ruston’s First Baptist Church. Bossier City’s First Baptist Church held a ceremony for 269 couples. But the practice was still slow to catch on among the general populace. In rural, heavily Catholic St. Landry Parish, it took more than six months for the first couple to apply for a covenant marriage license.

Perkins was unfazed. “It’s going to be a slow process,” he told The Times-Picayune. “I don’t expect this to really be up and running for another year.”

photo by Robin May

Though covenant marriage has had little effect on divorce as a whole, those who opt for it do have lower divorce rates. Laura A. Sanchez, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University and co-author of the 2008 book Covenant Marriage: The Movement to Reclaim Tradition in America, followed the marriages of 700 couples in researching the book, and found that covenants had half the rate of divorces as noncovenants — though other factors were in play as well, including a couple’s level of professed religiosity, premarital counseling and a general belief in the institution of marriage as a lifetime commitment. “They were substantially committed to marriage, which drew them to the covenant relationship to begin with,” Sanchez says.

State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, was in the Louisiana House of Representatives when covenant marriage was introduced, and was, with Perkins and Spaht, one of its most vocal proponents. When Broome and her husband married in 1998, they chose the covenant option. Today, she speculates that the lack of covenant marriages in the state is due to a lack of consciousness among the public. “I don’t want to point a finger at the clerks of court,” Broome says. “I just think there’s not a lot of awareness out there, even within the religious community.”

Both Perkins and Spaht say Louisiana clerks of court are either uninformed about the covenant option, or find it to be too much “paperwork,” in Perkins’ opinion. (Sanchez’s research confirmed their theories, though she and her co-authors found some courthouse employees simply felt it wasn’t their business to educate the public.) And then there was the problem of the Catholic Church, which objected to the bill because of the mandatory discussion of divorce in premarital counseling.

In 1999, Perkins sponsored a bill that sought to make covenant marriage more palatable to the church by eliminating the requirement to discuss divorce. A statement from the bishops of Louisiana commended the governor and the Legislature, but stated, “The Catholic policy of marriage preparation is not changed ... The marriage preparation programs required in the dioceses of Louisiana remain in force.” Sarah Comiskey, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, confirmed that the statement has not been changed in the subsequent 10 years; on covenant marriage, the Catholic church is officially agnostic.

The picture did not improve for covenant marriage advocates following the turn of the century. Though Arizona in 1998 became the second state to adopt the practice, fewer than 1 percent of Arizonans chose the option. Covenant marriage arrived in Arkansas in 2001, enthusiastically signed into law by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee — who, though he was an ordained Baptist minister, did not “upgrade” his own marriage at the time. A study by the University of Arkansas found that in 2002, more than 37,000 Arkansas couples obtained wedding licenses; only 67 of them chose to be covenants, a total of one-tenth of 1 percent.

Meanwhile, another marriage issue had moved to the media forefront: civil unions and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, which were enacted in Vermont and California in 2000 and became campaign issues, particularly in the 2004 presidential election. In 2005, then-President George W. Bush introduced his “Healthy Marriage Initiative,” which allocated $100 million of federal funds to promote marriage, but the White House made no mention of covenant marriage; a spokesman told The New York Times it was a “states’ issue.” And Bush and his wife Laura chose not to upgrade their own.

One prominent couple did: Huckabee and his wife Janet, four years after the governor signed the state’s covenant marriage law. At the time, Arkansas’ divorce rates were second only to Nevada’s. So the Huckabees went in big; their covenant was performed at Little Rock’s Alltel Arena on Valentine’s Day in front of 6,500 celebrants, including gospel singer CeCe Winans and Rabbi Daniel Lapin of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. The Huckabees had already been married 31 years.

Columnist Margaret Carlson saw the $65,000 spectacle as a political ploy: “If moral values helped President Bush win the White House, why not Gov. Huckabee?” she asked. Even some conservatives weren’t impressed — columnist Ann Althouse found it “appalling” that Huckabee was (in her words) “thrusting his private life into a gigantic rally.”

Back in Louisiana, six years into the covenant marriage experiment, ideals had already clashed with commerce. In 2003, the Louisiana House quietly passed what The Times-Picayune euphemistically called “a bill to streamline marriage licensing” and what the rest of the world knows as “Vegas-style quickie weddings.” (In a nod to the morality of Louisianans, the law was only relaxed for out-of-staters.) The bill had bipartisan support from Democratic Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (“We’re trying to make New Orleans a destination place”) and — surprisingly — Tony Perkins, who saw no contradiction between his own covenant marriage law and New Orleans’ bid for Vegas wedding dollars. “I would rather see Louisiana recognized as a destination for marriage than a destination for divorce,” he said at the time.

Immediately, the French Quarter Wedding Chapel opened a satellite operation called “Weddings a Go Go,” and later that year, the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals — the office once headed by covenant supporter and future Gov. Bobby Jindal — issued a press release crowing, “In addition to the shows, nightlife and gambling, tourists can now come for quickie weddings.”

Still, covenant marriage proponents are still fighting, eking out small victories, though much of the message is as confusing as ever. Though the 2008 Republican Party platform made no mention of covenant marriage, the Texas GOP platform called for it, along with the complete abolishment of no-fault divorce, as well as making it a felony to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple — this despite the fact that during the 2007 Texas legislative session, a proposed covenant marriage bill failed to clear the state house.

In the 2008 presidential race, none of the four couples at the top of either political ticket were covenants. Though John McCain was senator of one of the three states that had passed covenant marriage, and spent much of his campaign trying to bolster his conservative credentials, he and Cindy McCain did not renew their vows as covenants. His running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, who often spoke glowingly about “traditional families,” told the Christian Broadcasting Network in October 2008 that she supported amending the U.S. Constitution specifically to forbid same-sex marriage. Still, Palin had no public comments on covenant marriage.

And that seems to be a pattern; few cultural conservatives seem willing to stake a public position for covenant marriage. Some evangelicals, including the Rev. James Dobson and Chuck Colson, have spoken out for the practice, but megachurch leaders such as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen have shied away, as have conservative media voices like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

Asked to name national family-values politicians and spokespeople who have entered into covenant marriage, Perkins says, “I don’t know. We’ve had several big ceremonies. I don’t recall.” Sanchez, Spaht and Broome could only come up with Jindal and Huckabee — both of whom happen to be Southern governors with strong evangelical followings and equally strong political ambitions.

For Spaht, who kept the promise she made to God 14 years ago, the low adoption rates are particularly disheartening. “There are a lot of hypocrites in this world,” she says. “A lot of these people screaming about same-sex marriage? Boy, howdy, they sure know how to turn on a dime.”

Perkins is more sanguine. “In public policy, fashions come and go. I think the season for covenant marriage ... the novelty has kind of worn off.”

All may not be lost, though. In November, Jindal named 29 people to his Commission on Marriage and Family, a state board designed to “propose programs, policies, incentives and curriculum regarding marriage and family.” Among its members are Perkins, Spaht, Broome and the Rev. Fred Lowery of Bossier City, the author of a book on covenant marriage. Broome says the group has only met once, adding that it is “too early” to know whether the group will work on covenant marriage.

But Perkins says he has not given up. “When the Jindal administration gets through some of these challenging times,” he says, “I hope they’ll focus on some of these family laws.”

Kevin Allman is editor of The Gambit, the alt-weekly newspaper in New Orleans. Contact him at [email protected].