.- A reform of marriage laws and better marital counseling programs have been proposed as ways to lower the divorce rate and improve the quality of marriages.
Michael McManus, president of Marriage Savers, has been advocating a "Community Marriage Policy"(CMP) to help create lasting marriages. The policy, which helps churches prepare, enrich, or restore marriage has been implemented in 220 cities.
The Catholic Bishop of Evansville Gerald Gettelfinger has thanked Marriage Savers in a letter for helping his area cut divorce rates by twenty percent while raising marriage rates sixteen percent.
A study comparing cities and counties that had instituted a Community Marriage Policy with cities and counties that had not instituted the policy indicated CMP localities had a larger drop in their divorce rate.
Paul Birch and Stan Weed of the Institute for Research and Evaluation compared the divorce rate of the first 114 CMP counties to the rate in similar counties without the policy. While the divorce rate fell by 9.4 percent in the non-policy counties, counties that had enacted the Community Marriage Policy fell 17.5 percent over the same seven-year period. Birch and Weed estimated that between 31,000 and 50,000 marriages were preserved in the CMP counties.
Between 1990 and 2000, cohabitation rates also fell 13.4 percent in CMP localities, while they rose by 19.2 percent in counties without the policy.
In a proposal to the National Association of Evangelicals, Michael McManus has suggested three policy changes that could supplement and spread the beneficial effects of the Community Marriage Policy.
One proposal is to mandate that states spend between two and five percent of their welfare reform surplus on so-called "Health Marriage Initiatives," which could include instituting CMPs in a state.
McManus also proposes replacing no-fault divorce laws with mutual consent laws. "What was entered into by two people willingly should not be terminated by one person who alleges the couple is incompatible," he wrote in a letter to Catholic News Agency. He suggested there are constitutional problems with no-fault divorce, since the proceedings always result in a judgment favorable to the spouse who started the divorce proceedings. This could violate the guarantee of due process in the Fifth Amendment.
A change of child custody laws could also help children after a divorce or strengthen spouses' desire to preserve their marriage. Sole custody, the legal arrangement in which guardianship of children is awarded only to one parent after a divorce, could be changed to favor joint custody or shared parenting arrangements.
McManus' proposal, he claims, could slash divorce rates by fifty percent. "That would be enough to save 500,000 marriages a year from divorce, and enable 500,000 kids a year to avoid the turmoil of a parental divorce, or 5 million in a decade," McManus said.
Marriage reform could be implemented through state legislatures, but McManus was not optimistic about that route. Legislatures have an overrepresentation of lawyers, some of whom are divorce attorneys. This provides a strong disincentive for them to block the reform of divorce laws.
Change on the federal level could better implement marriage reform. Congress could require states to spend some welfare dollars on marriage initiatives. The constitutional question of possible due process violations could also provide congress authority to intervene.
But McManus sees marriage reform as potentially a strong issue for a Republican presidential candidate. "It would give him a fresh issue to champion to awaken his base," he said.
The National Association of Evangelicals will revisit the Marriage Savers' proposal at its meeting in March.