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Religious Groups Nurturing Marriage

By Lila Arzua
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page B06

Leaders of two dozen Loudoun County churches and religious organizations vowed over the weekend to support the institution of marriage, saying they hoped to prevent thousands of divorces in the county over the next decade.

The pledge, signed at First Mount Olive Baptist Church in Leesburg by 24 pastors and heads of religious communities, seeks "to empower and enrich life-long marriages and to raise up the standard of two-parent families in the community," according to the document. "In this way, our community will foster an environment that has the greatest likelihood of ensuring the wellbeing of its members, especially its children."

At current rates, Loudoun, the fastest-growing county in the United States, will probably record 8,000 divorces during the next 10 years, according to Jack Stagman, president of the Loudoun Church Alliance, which is coordinating the pro-marriage effort. By adopting the practices of Marriage Savers -- a national group devoted to preserving marriage -- Stagman and several of the pastors hope to cut that number in half.

Marriage Savers is an eight-year-old nondenominational organization that has initiated similar programs in other communities, including Austin and Kansas City, Kan.

"We're letting people know that we the church are going to take some leadership in this," said the Rev. Harold Stinger, pastor of First Mount Olive Baptist Church. "I feel we're going to accomplish an awful lot.

"And for every marriage that's saved, you're probably affecting three or four people," Stagman said.

At the meeting, Marriage Savers co-founders Mike and Harriet McManus presented statistics gathered by the Heritage Foundation and the Census that they said show married people are happier, wealthier, healthier and have sex more frequently than singles. Single parenthood, they said, increases the incidence of suicide, incarceration and child abuse.

"Strengthening marriage is a concern that transcends religious differences," Mike McManus told the gathering.

Marriage Savers emphasizes a three-tiered approach: preparing couples prior to marriage, strengthening existing marriages and rescuing marriages in crisis. Mentor couples, who are trained to provide guidance, are a key component of all three approaches. The Loudoun Church Alliance has begun recruiting dozens of couples, who will start training in December. They then will be able to help others through the issues in their marriages as well as conduct premarital "inventories" to help the engaged be certain that they are making the right decision, Marriage Savers proponents said.

Stagman said that too many organized churches fail to combat the "chaos" of divorce. "We are the cause of the breakdown of marriage in America," said Stagman, observing that divorce rates among religious communities are now comparable to those in secular ones. "Divorce affects everybody -- Democrat, Republican, the wealthy, the middle class, the poor and all the races," he said.

Also at the weekend's meeting were David Weintraub and Jonathan Weintraub, partners for 21 years and founders of Equality Loudoun, a group that advocates on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. David Weintraub said that he supports the idea of encouraging couples to take inventories prior to marriage but that his agreement with the Marriage Savers ends there. He said he is concerned that those involved in the weekend's pro-marriage pledge are opposed to homosexual marriage.

"The right to marry doesn't mean anything without the marriage of your choice," he said.

Stagman, however, said that question is outside the marriage preservation effort in Loudoun. "We are not making a stand or a statement in that area at all," said Stagman, who said he welcomes Christians as well as non-Christians to sign the pledge. "The focus of what we are all about is strengthening marriage and reducing divorce."

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