Faced with the third highest divorce rate in the US (behind Nevada and Arkansas), the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature has sparked a firestorm of debate – even within its conservative, republican ranks – as to how big a role the state should play in stemming the divorce rate; one where more than half of Oklahoma marriages end in divorce.
So far, three pieces of legislation have been introduced, and two have already been defeated. Wiped off the table was a proposal to oblige couples to seek therapy or faith-based counseling prior to filing for divorce. Also gone is a proposal to eliminate “incompatibility” as grounds for divorce in marriages older than 10 years, or in marriages that have children. However, one proposal remains alive – for now.
The lone legislative survivor is a proposal that would oblige couples to seek counseling before marriage, and also require married couples considering divorce to attend therapy sessions. The latter aspect of this measure is an echo of a defeated proposal, and so many of the critics who attacked that have shifted their aim to this.
The brainchild of this surviving proposal is Rep. Mark McCullogh (Republican). Speaking on the pre-marriage counseling aspect of his measure, McCullogh noted that “[i]t might provide a little benefit up front to newly married couples.” And in response to whether the other aspect of his proposal — the one requiring therapy for couples considering divorce – was invasive, McCullogh considers the intervention minimal and justified. “It could very well satisfy a compelling government interest. It’s a terrible crisis.”
On that very last point – that this is a crisis — McCullogh’s views are shared by Democrats, Republicans, and everyone else.
And it’s more than a domestic and social crisis; it’s a financial one, too. Facing a budget debt of $665 million, some Oklahoma Legislators argue that the costs of divorce are placing an immense financial burden on the system. This view – that divorce drains the public purse — is echoed by the non-partisan Institute for American Values, who in a 2008 study estimated that the national taxpayer cost of divorce and unwed childbearing is $112 billion a year.
However, the chances that McCullogh’s proposal will become law is shaky at best, because as noted above, it has raised the odious notion of crossing the line between church and state — something that many Oklahoma politicians and citizens are steadfastly against, regardless of the good intentions. “How far do I want government to come into my home and your home about private personal matters?” asked Rep. Leslie Osborn, who is opposed to the measure.
Her views were shared by Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council public policy foundation, who said that direct government intervention to stem divorces is a mistake. “We’ve got to break the cycle of divorce. But I don’t think we should mandate it.” Instead, he favors a system in which couples voluntary seek pre-marriage counseling, and agree to limit their options if a divorce happens down the road.
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