Religious leaders launch push to save marriages

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Religious leaders launch push to save marriages

Group will host summits to introduce mentoring programs, lobby for divorce waiting periods.

Gregg Krupa / The Detroit News

An interfaith coalition of religious leaders is launching a marriage offensive in Michigan over the next 48 hours.

Convinced that stubborn rates of divorce will yield to marriage counseling and patience, a group of more than a dozen ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and laity have scheduled a series of meetings today and Friday to introduce marriage-saving programs to Metro Detroit couples, lobby legislators for mandatory waiting periods for divorce and commit Macomb County to a Community Marriage Policy, which 223 communities across the country have adopted.

“Michigan’s divorce rate is among the highest in the Midwest,” said Michael McManus, president of Marriage Savers, a nonprofit that is one of several groups participating in the effort to prolong marriages in Michigan. “We need to save some of these families and stop the harm that happens to children of divorce, who have many more problems in life with poverty, incarceration and more bad marriages.”

The advocates will use the meetings to promote peer ministry, in which couples who averted divorce counsel troubled couples. They also will lobby legislators at a Legislative Marriage Summit in Lansing today. Other meetings will take place today and Friday at churches in Birmingham, Highland Park and Roseville and a mosque in Dearborn Heights. Local clergy, legal professionals and civic leaders will sign what is billed as the largest Community Marriage Policy in the country, Friday at Sacred Heart Church in Roseville.

Signatories to the policy pledge themselves to encourage enactment of the five-part Community Marriage Policy program, which calls for six months of preparation before marriage, annual church-run marriage retreats, training married couples to intervene in troubled marriages, a 12-week reconciliation course for separated couples and creating so-called step-families — support groups for families and couples dealing with troubled marriages.

The leaders say the Community Marriage Policy has proven its worth nationally, and the peer counseling programs — including Retrouvaille, a national, multifaith effort that recently drew praise from Pope Benedict XVI — have lowered divorce rates.

“We can empower healthy, married couples to mentor other couples for lifelong marriages,” said the Rev. Lawrence Ventline, of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Michigan had the 27th highest rate of divorce in the nation, with 3.4 divorces per 1,000 residents in 2007, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Illinois, with the third-lowest rate of divorce — 2.6 divorces per 1,000 persons — requires a two-year waiting period for contested divorces and six months for uncontested divorces.

While Michigan currently requires a six-month waiting period for divorces of couples who have children and 60 days for those with no children, critics say the rule is so easily evaded that an effective waiting period does not exist. They advocate, for couples with children, a six-month waiting period for uncontested divorces and a two-year waiting period when one spouse objects to divorce.

Twenty-two states have waiting periods for no-fault divorces, ranging from three months to two years, and 28 states have none, according to DivorceReform.org, a group of lawyers seeking to reform divorce law.

“I can appreciate people trying to save marriages and make divorce more difficult, but it does not apply to every situation,” said Michael Robbins, a divorce lawyer and a past chairman of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan. “There are all sorts of reasons why we would not want to make it more difficult to get divorces and to end marriages as quickly as possible, including abuse.

“Maybe what we ought to be doing is making it harder to get married,” Robbins said.

The advocates likely face an uphill struggle in the Legislature. More than 10 years ago, a proposal to enact longer waiting periods passed in the House but failed in the Senate — the closest any such proposal has come to approval.

In 2004, Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed a bill that would have mandated marriage preparation to qualify for a license and some education for parents in divorce proceedings.

The Catholic Church has long required couples to complete a similar requirement before they can marry, and the advocates hope to encourage more widespread use of that requirement.

They also seek to make routine the peer ministry counseling, like Retrouvaille, which they say have saved tens of thousands of marriages.

While the Retrouvaille program is strongly endorsed by the Catholic Church, less than 50 percent of the participants in Metro Detroit sessions are Christian, let alone Catholic. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other couples have all participated.

Four couples who completed the Retrouvaille — named for the French word for “rediscovery” — and have remained married said it helps couples begin anew by giving them the skills to talk to each other about feelings and emotions in constructive ways.

“I found that my marriage and my wife were still of value to me,” said Mark Squier of Fraser. He and his wife, Betty, participated in the program 23 years ago, saved their marriage, and have participated in Retrouvaille ever since as volunteer peer mentors. “We learned how to communicate, although we really weren’t all that good at it, still, for the next four years or so. But we kept at it.”

“One thing we did was to stop using the D-word,” Betty said.

Detroit News Staff Writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.
You can reach Gregg Krupa at (313) 222-2359 or gkrupa@detnews.com.

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