Altering the way to the altar License: Louisiana's new 'Covenant Marriage' option forces couples to slow down and act cautiously. But so far, few are choosing it.

October 20, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS -- The Rice-Schnell wedding had everything: The bride afloat in white. The groom in his tuxedo. And for the traditional something new: a marriage license titled, "Covenant Marriage."

Diane Rice Schnell and Rene Schnell are among the first couples to join Louisiana's efforts to make divorce more difficult.

Instead of a standard marriage license, the Schnells chose to sign a new document that includes the line, "We understand that a covenant marriage is for life."

They gave up the right to no-fault divorce. They attended counseling sessions before the wedding. And they promised to have more counseling if the marriage falters. They can be divorced only for a limited number of reasons -- including adultery, abuse and abandonment -- or after a two-year separation.

"Some of our friends said to us, 'What if you want to get a divorce? It will be so hard,' " says Diane Schnell, 26, a television production assistant. "And we said, 'That's the point.' "

Increasingly, legislators around the country are debating how to cut the divorce rate -- more than 4 of every 10 marriages are dissolved -- and strengthen families. Repeal no-fault divorce, in which no one is blamed for the breakup? Require a premarital waiting period? Offer mediation services?

Louisiana came up with a different approach: covenant marriage, an option that won legislative approval in the spring. On Aug. 15, this state, which likes to let the good times roll and revels in its devil-may-care image, began offering covenant marriage as a second kind of marriage license -- one that forces a couple to slow down and act cautiously.

Some critics say the new form devalues the standard marriage license. "When I got married, it was me, my spouse and God," says the Rev. James Lindsay of De Ridder, La. "Wasn't that good enough?"

But the Schnells, who live in the New Orleans suburb of Arabi, found covenant marriage appealing -- perhaps, they say, because both had divorced parents. As children, they would have welcomed any device that would have sent their parents to counseling and staved off divorce.

"You're supposed to stay together and help each other and stay a family," says Rene Schnell, 24, a student who works as a waiter. "Nowadays, it's so easy to divorce, it's like breaking up with your girlfriend."

"Couples don't always think straight in a crisis," Diane Schnell says. "So if they're required to go to counseling, maybe that would help."

Unlike a standard marriage license, covenant marriage asks a couple even before the wedding to think about how the relationship might end.

"With covenant marriage, the focus is on the front-end," says state Rep. Tony Perkins, the lead sponsor on the bill. "You've got to make sure that both go into the marriage relationship with the same expectations of permanence."

'Not a blockade to divorce'

Perkins, a Baton Rouge Republican, says covenant marriage is "not a blockade to divorce. If a couple is unhappy, there's still a way out."

"But we need to make marriage better," he says. "We've got to try to undo what's happened in our culture over the last 30, 40 years."

So far, court officials say, very few couples in the state are choosing the new license. In New Orleans, only two of more than 400 couples who married between Aug. 15 and Sept. 15 elected covenant marriage. In Caddo Parish, which includes Shreveport, the court clerk says only three of more than 300 licenses issued from mid-August to mid-October were for covenant marriages. East Baton Rouge Parish reported eight covenant marriages among 630 licenses in that same two-month period.

The licenses, good for 30 days, must be issued at least 72 hours before the wedding. At the courthouse, couples are asked which form of license they are choosing. People who opt for a standard marriage can convert it to a covenant license later.

"I think it will be a while before it catches on in the church community," says William Barlow, Louisiana's registrar of vital records. "And that's where I expect the momentum to be."

Perkins predicts that within a few years 50 percent to 60 percent of Louisiana weddings will be covenant marriages.

That would not please the Louisianians who view the new law skeptically. Joe Cook of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana calls covenant marriage "a noble-sounding thing" that was pushed through the Legislature by conservative Christians. "They're using the power of the state to enforce religious doctrine."

Lindsay, the De Ridder minister, calls covenant marriage "a wolf hid out in sheep's clothing. It's really the first step in doing away with no-fault divorce."

"There are so many people, good Christian people, who think you can force people to stay together," he says. "But we do not believe moral problems are ever going to be solved by the government."

And even the sponsors of the law say it's unclear whether courts would uphold its terms should one spouse, or both, move to another state.

'Parade of horribles'

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