LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Gov. Mike Huckabee (search) and his wife plan to convert their nuptial vows into a covenant marriage (search) during a mass ceremony on Valentine's Day, giving a public push to the movement that seeks to strengthen marital ties and make it harder to get divorced.
The governor, a former Baptist minister, said Monday he hopes more than 1,000 other couples will join him for the conversion ceremony at a North Little Rock arena. Arkansas has one of the highest divorce rates (search) in the country.
Covenant marriages, which also are an option in Louisiana and Arizona, usually require pre-wedding counseling and allow divorce only in cases of adultery, imprisonment, abandonment, abuse and after a substantial waiting period.
Huckabee did not disclose the total cost for the Valentine's Day event, but said most of the cost would be covered by contributions from participating churches. He defended using some taxpayer money to promote the ceremony and cover some its costs.
"We believe it's an important enough event to use this time and resources for it because, quite frankly, we're spending an enormous amount of money dealing with the consequences of marriages that don't work out," the governor said.
Arkansas' marriage rate is nearly double the national average — 15.1 per 1,000 population compared to the national rate of 8.3, but the state's divorce rate is among the highest in the nation at 6.5 per 1,000 population, according to the governor's office. The national average is 4.2.
The proposed ceremony did not rankle the head of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which strictly monitors the separation of church and state.
"I don't think we have a problem with it," ACLU Executive Director Rita Sklar said. "I don't think it's Christian per se or religious per se. A covenant marriage, as I understand it, is not necessarily a religious event."
Huckabee said too few couples have taken advantage of the covenant marriage option since he signed a 2001 law creating it. About 600 such unions were created in three years out of about 40,000 marriages that occur annually in the state.
Some opponents say marriage is a religious matter and not one for the government to regulate. Supporters argue it is a way to help slow the divorce trend that they say hurts children.
Huckabee said the pastor of the church he attends recently announced that he would perform only covenant marriages. But Huckabee said that, as the state's chief executive, he was not encouraging pastors to take such a stand.
"That would be across a line that I wouldn't step," he said. "I would encourage them to encourage their members to seek a covenant marriage. I wouldn't ask them to require it."