OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma senator asked colleagues Tuesday to target one of the nation's worst divorce rates by allowing couples to enter into "covenant" marriages, which require counseling before the vows and restrict the grounds for divorce.
The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the proposal by Coalgate Republican Josh Brecheen, sending it on to the Senate floor, despite concerns that people would be trapped in loveless marriages even if they both wanted out. Under Brecheen's bill, the only acceptable grounds for divorce for couples who agree to covenant marriages are spousal abuse, abandonment and other serious behaviors.
Divorce rates across the country have fallen steadily over the past two decades. Oklahoma's divorce rate — 5.2 per 1,000 residents — outpaced all but three other states in 2010, the latest data available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.
"We all know that we have a tremendous problem in our state with the divorce rate," Brecheen told the panel.
The concept behind covenant marriages is to ensure couples are ready to marry and are willing to fix any problems that arise later.
Arizona, Arkansas and Louisiana currently allow covenant marriages. Any impact they have had on divorce rates is ambiguous — for example, Arkansas still has a divorce rate even higher than Oklahoma's. Critics also say the new category is unnecessary and undervalues other marriages.
The Senate panel supported a similar bill in 2009 but the bill never became law. With this year's version, some committee members worried about its restrictions on divorce.
Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, who voted for the bill, said it would reduce the grounds for divorce from 15 to five. He asked Brecheen what would happen if a young couple naively entered into a covenant marriage then found themselves in a miserable, loveless marriage after more life experience.
"I'm worried about my two daughters, who are 19 and 17, in this," Crain said.
Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Sayre, said hypothetically that it wouldn't allow divorce for the wife of Jerry Sandusky, the disgraced Penn State assistant football coach. Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison last year for the sexual assault of 10 children.
Brecheen responded that he'd be willing to adjust some provisions but that he was convinced of the damage wreaked by divorce on families. He said the bill aims to underscore the commitment behind love and marriage.
"I'm a firm believer that love is a choice — it's not something you fall into or out of," he said. "No one is asking anyone to live in a loveless marriage. The question is do you make it much more thoughtful?"