by Mike McManus May 16, 1998

Can a liberal Jew from Miami Beach (Rep. Elaine Bloom) work with a conservative head of the Christian Coalition in Florida (John Dowless) and produce a law that can cut the divorce rate in Florida? As unlikely as it sounds, that's what happened last week.

By a vote in the Florida House of 91 to 16, and a unanimous vote in the Senate, the Legislature passed the "Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act of 1998."  It is the most sweeping and positive reform of both marriage and divorce law of any state in decades.

The bill's opening words are both wise and eloquent a rare feat in itself:

``Just as the family is the foundation of society, the marital relationship is the foundation of a family. Consequently, strengthening marriages can only lead to stronger families, children and communities, as well as a stronger economy.

``An inability to cope with stress from both internal and external sources leads to significantly higher incidents of domestic violence, child abuse, absenteeism, medical costs, learning and social deficiencies, and divorce.

``Relationship skills can be learned.

``Once learned, relationship skills can facilitate communication between parties to a marriage and assist couples in avoiding conflict. Once relationship skills are learned, they are generalized to parenting, the workplace, schools neighborhoods and civic relationships.

``By reducing conflict and increasing communication, stressors can be diminished and coping can be furthered. When effective coping exists, domestic violence, child abuse, and divorce and its effect on children...are diminished.

``The state has a compelling interest in educating its citizens with regard to marriage and, if contemplated, the effects of divorce,'' says Florida's new bill.

Therefore, the bill, which is expected to be signed by the governor, takes these new steps:

1. High school students must take a course in ``marriage and relationship skill-based education.'' No state ever made such a requirement.

2. Engaged couples are encouraged to take a ``premarital education course'' of at least four hours which it suggests include instruction on conflict resolution, communication skills, financial responsibilities, children and parenting and data on problems married couples face.

Those who take such a course from a church or secular counselor can get a $32.50 reduction in the cost of their marriage license, which normally costs between $88 and $200, depending on the county. Each courthouse will have a roster of houses of worship or counselors certified to give the course.

Originally, the bill required premarital preparation, but both conservatives and liberals did not want government to interfere that much. However, both sides could live with a strong encouragement, with the sweetener of a reduced marriage license fee.

3. Each couple applying for a marriage license will also be given a handbook prepared by the Bar Association to inform couples of ``the rights and responsibilities under Florida law of marital partners to each other and to their children, both during a marriage and upon dissolution.'' For example, it notes ``permanent relocation restrictions on parents'' caring for children in divorce. Both the man and woman must sign a statement that they have read it, but are not tested on it.

Rep. Bloom said, ``For many years I felt we needed to give people an understanding of what the laws of Florida are. If they knew they would be financially responsible for the child forever,'' they might not be so quick to divorce.

4. Couples with children who file for divorce must take a ``Parent Education and Family Stabilization Course'' that covers the legal and emotional impact of divorce on adults and children, financial responsibility, laws on child abuse or neglect and they must learn conflict resolution skills. The course has existed for some time, but it is normally taken after a divorce is final. Rep. Bloom says, ``We hope that by starting early, within a month of filing a divorce petition, before it becomes too adversarial, when parents see how children suffer short-term and long-term detrimental economic, emotional and educational effects,'' that couples will see it is easier and wiser to make a marriage work than a divorce.

The Christian Coalition's Dowless adds, ``The state has given a challenge to the churches and synagogues. They have a chance to step forward and register free courses at the courthouse to help people who would not normally get involved.

'' I predict Florida's law will inspire many states to pass similar laws.

Copyright 1998 Michael J. McManus

Mike McManus has been writing the ``Ethics & Religion'' column since 1981. He is syndicated in more than 90 newspapers.

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