State says 'I do' to saving marriages

A conservative, faith-based organization that pushed for a controversial divorce bill is now joining forces with the state to help it play marriage counselor.

On Jan. 20, a week after the state House Judiciary Committee gave a favorable report of a Senate bill that would quadruple the waiting period for some couples wishing to divorce, the Georgia Department of Human Services announced its own marriage-saving project — developed in part by the force behind the divorce bill, Georgia Family Council.

The DHR's marriage project will be launched in Macon and eventually be carried out in three low-income neighborhoods in metro Atlanta, as well as ones in Thomasville and Columbus.

Such projects aren't uncommon. In Oklahoma, for example, federal money was used to fund state programs attempting to raise the marriage rate among the poor and to prevent out-of-wedlock births.

"The whole purpose is to reduce the suffering that occurs with family breakdown," says Randy Hicks, president of Georgia Family Council. "We want to help people have happy marriages."

Here's where it gets sticky, though: Georgia Family Council typically promotes healthy marriages through biblical guidance. According to the council's sample "community marriage declaration," "God has called us as shepherds of Christian congregations and religious leaders to our community to uphold biblical standards for healthy marriage relationships."

A faith-based group directly shaping a state-run project can be problematic in the struggle to separate church from state, says Maggie Garrett, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney. She adds that, in particular, Georgia Family Council's marriage declaration might give the impression that in order to benefit from the Council's curriculum, couples should believe in God.

"The state can contract with religious-affiliated organizations," Garrett points out, "as long as the money is used for secular services."

Barbara Joye, a DHR spokeswoman, says the content of the marriage-saving workshops will be strictly secular. "The funds will not be used to proselytize or evangelize," Joye says. "The program is not limited to people of faith."

In addition to helping with curricula, Georgia Family Council has vowed to raise $500,000 for the DHR marriage-saving project. And the federal government likes the idea so much that its Administration for Children and Families is allocating funds for the project, too.

However, some critics wonder whether state-run instruction on healthy marriages will have an impact on actual divorce rates. And lawmakers such as state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, are concerned about Georgia Family Council's role in both the DHR project and the divorce legislation.

"Many people's cases are too individual and personal to have an arbitrary waiting period," Oliver says of the divorce bill. "It makes me nervous that the state wants to interfere in people's personal lives."

The legislation would require that the waiting period for divorcing couples with children be extended from 30 days to 120 days. It also would require potential divorcees to attend couples counseling. (There are exceptions for domestic abuse victims.)

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, says the wait to divorce makes sense. After being approached last year by members of Georgia Family Council, who asked him to introduce legislation to help lower the state's divorce rate, he did just that.

Georgia Family Council's data suggests that states with divorce waiting periods of more than 90 days — such as Louisiana, which has a 180-day waiting period — have seen their divorce rate decrease by 25 percent.

"After looking at the data [on divorce]," Seabaugh says, "it dawned on me that the state doesn't do anything to try to encourage reconciliation."

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