Va. Foundation Seeks to Reduce Divorces

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007

During a heated campaign last year over a ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage in Virginia, conservatives encountered a common argument: Heterosexual marriage needs fixing, too.

The Family Foundation -- a primary backer of the successful state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman -- says it concurs with that argument and aims to do something about it.

"They would say that we should be focused on heterosexual marriage because it's such a mess," Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative group, said of the Family Foundation's opponents. "We don't disagree."

The Richmond-based foundation has formed a commission of academics, religious leaders and government aides to develop policy recommendations aimed at curbing the state's divorce rate. There is bipartisan support for taking some action.

The 17-member commission plans to consider policies in other states, including covenant marriage -- an optional agreement that requires counseling before matrimony and before a divorce. Also on the table are proposals the foundation has backed in the past. Under one of those, a no-fault divorce would require the consent of both spouses if a minor is in the home. According to Virginia law, in a no-fault divorce, either party can file for divorce without showing wrongdoing.

"We have to reverse a cultural belief that says divorce is the only solution," Cobb said. "Some people are going to get divorced no matter what . . . but states certainly can implement -- for lack of a better word -- speed bumps, or things that can slow down the process, to make sure that each party has determined that this is the only outcome and the absolute best outcome for the family."

Divorce rates in Virginia were slightly higher in 2005 than the nationwide average -- about 3.85 per 1,000 people compared with 3.6 nationally -- according to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics. According to Virginia law, either party can file for divorce without showing wrongdoing, a practice known as no-fault divorce.

The commission, which first met July 12, has a measure of official backing because representatives of Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) are members. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) will send someone from his policy staff to attend meetings as an observer, his spokesman said.

There is bipartisan support for the kinds of measures under consideration. McDonnell sponsored legislation on covenant marriage when he was a state delegate, and Kaine endorsed a version of the policy in 2003, when he was lieutenant governor. Both continue to back the concept, their spokesmen said.

But the ideas also have their bipartisan detractors. To some Republicans, the notion of further regulating divorce is irksome.

"I think it's obviously an overreach to get involved in the personal matters of a man and wife," said Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester). "Just like there's a separation of church and state, there also has to be a separation of government from people's personal lives."

Some Democrats say other social changes could do more to keep families together. "Rather than government working to make it more difficult to get divorced, it probably would be better for government to make it easier for families to stay together by working on things like the minimum wage and health care," said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria).

Hindering divorce might make it more difficult for some people to escape abusive relationships, said Kate McCord, spokesman for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance in Richmond. "We cannot support policies that trap people in a relationship where one partner is being violent," she said.

Louisiana, Arizona and Arkansas have covenant marriage laws. Studies indicate that extremely low numbers of couples have opted for the more binding marriage contract in those states, said commission member Steven Nock, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who studies the issue.

Nock said that 2 percent of couples in Louisiana have entered into covenant marriages and that similar numbers are estimated in Arizona and Arkansas.

"Covenant marriage per se, or any single effort by a state, is not going to reverse the big demographic trends in marriage and divorce rates or out-of-wedlock births," Nock said.

Nock noted the growing trend of cohabitation -- couples living together in place of marriage -- and said policies that impede divorce could lead some to live together out of wedlock.

"Anything that sort of raises the bar for getting into or getting out of marriage for some people, on the margin, would probably move them closer to cohabitation," he said.

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