OKLAHOMA CITY – A Republican lawmaker hopes to reduce the state's high divorce rate by allowing "covenant marriages" that would make it more difficult for couples to split up.
The voluntary new form of marriage proposed by Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, would ban "incompatibility" as grounds for divorce and require the couple to attend marriage counseling at least 15 days before the wedding.
Wright said the new marriage option would lead to a higher level of commitment between partners — and fewer divorces. Couples would choose a covenant marriage as a way to hold themselves up to a higher standard of working through problems without considering divorce first, he said.
"Any couple has trying times in their marriage, but successful couples learn how to work through their problems," Wright said. "This eliminates the easy-out mechanism."
The House approved the measure 93-7 Monday and sent it to the Senate, where similar covenant marriage bills have died in the past.
Under a covenant marriage, only adultery, abuse, abandonment, fraud or a separation period of at least 18 months without reconciliation would be grounds for divorce.
Robert Spector, a University of Oklahoma family law professor, said covenant marriage is not likely to reduce Oklahoma's divorce rate. Making divorce more difficult will only lead to more money in attorneys' pockets, he said. In other states with covenant marriages laws, such as Louisiana and Arkansas, Spector said fewer than 5 percent of couples elect such a union.
Oklahoma's divorce rate is currently about 5 divorces per 1,000 Oklahomans each year. Experts say Oklahoma and neighboring Bible belt states have some of the highest divorce rates, although marriage rates are hard to calculate as each state has a different reporting method.
Ten years ago, the divorce rate was 6.8 divorces for every 1,000 Oklahomans. But marriages also have decreased since, from 9 marriages for every 1,000 people in 1994 to 6.4 marriages for every 1,000 people in 2004.
Sen. Richard Lerblance, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has refused to hear a similar bill, saying it is not the state's role to force a couple to stay married against their will.
"The laws we have on marriage in Oklahoma are adequate at this time, and I don't see any need to expand or limit them," said Lerblance, D-Hartshorne. "There is no use in making it harder to terminate a marriage destined for failure."