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States consider making couples get counseling before saying, ‘I do’

March 3, 1997

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) _ They’ve got the ring. They’ve set the date. But have they discussed their marriage plans with a counselor?

That question could make the difference between receiving a marriage license or remaining single if some state lawmakers have their way.

To stem the divorce rate, some states are considering legislation that would force couples to get premarital counseling before walking down the aisle.

Missouri, Michigan, Arizona and Florida all have legislation pending or in the works that would make marriage licenses more difficult _ or even impossible _ to get without proof that the couple has seen a counselor.

The bills are aimed at protecting children’s welfare _ and lessening states’ financial obligations _ in the aftermath of divorce.

``If we stop one divorce, it would seem to me that it would be worth trying,″ said Missouri state Rep. Tom Hoppe, a Democrat from Kansas City.

Michael McManus, president of the Marriage Savers Institute in Bethesda, Md., said about one-tenth of couples who take premarital compatibility tests discover irreconcilable differences and break up.

``The engagement process should be rigorous enough that weaker couples will break up on their own,″ he said.

Counseling ``makes them stop to look beyond just the romantic aspects of marriage,″ said the Rev. Reg Larson, a counselor and associate pastor with the Assemblies of God in Grandview, Mo.

Larson said counseling sessions address issues ranging from sex to managing household finances. Couples are taught how to communicate and disagree constructively.

``I don’t think they should require you to get counseling before you get married,″ Crystal Brown, 23, of Jefferson City said as she stood for her final wedding gown fitting at a bridal shop. She joked that if lawmakers really wanted to open couples’ eyes, they would require them to live together before their wedding day.

Marsha Richeson, Missouri lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed that state government should not interfere in a couple’s decision to marry.

States, though, often shoulder the burden of supporting children or tracking down parents who don’t pay child support after marriages break up, said Linda Kokas, an aide to Michigan Rep. Jessie Dalman.

Dalman, a Republican, offered a premarital counseling bill that passed the state House last year. Couples who do not receive counseling would have been required to wait 60 days for a license. The legislation died in the Senate, but Dalman plans to reintroduce it this session.

The Arizona Senate is considering a bill that would impose a higher marriage license fee for those who forgo premarital counseling. A similar measure died in the North Dakota House in February after opponents dubbed it a ``tax on matrimony.″

Under Hoppe’s bill in Missouri, county commissions would determine acceptable counseling programs. Counseling provided by a religious organization would qualify.

Couples would pay for the counseling unless they could prove they were indigent. Hoppe said he will amend his legislation to waive the counseling requirement for couples who cannot afford it.

Another Missouri representative, Republican Sam Gaskill, has introduced legislation requiring a 30-day wait for a marriage license for couples who don’t want to go through counseling.

``All of us could use better guidance in marriage, because your life sure changes after a divorce,″ Gaskill said. ``It seems like this is a real simple approach to solve the problem.″

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