When Mike and Kelly Johnson married in 1999, they opted for a "covenant marriage," which under Louisiana law requires premarital counseling and further counseling before a couple can be granted a divorce. Even then, divorce is only allowed in specific circumstances.
To them, Mike Johnson said, it was "kind of a no-brainer."
"My wife and I both come from traditional Christian households," he said. "My own parents are divorced. As anyone who goes through that knows, that was a traumatic thing for our whole family. I'm a big proponent of marriage and fidelity and all the things that go with it, and I've seen firsthand the devastation [divorce] can cause."
His wife was pleased that he was ready for such a commitment. "To me, I thought, 'OK, if a man is willing to enter into a covenant marriage with me, then that really shows me that he wants it to be forever,' " she said. "I think that it would be a pretty big red flag if you asked your mate or your fiancé, 'Let's do a covenant marriage,' and they said they don't really want to do that."
Faced with a growing divorce rate and dealing with children whose parents had split up, in 1997 Louisiana became the first state to offer covenant marriage as an option to standard marriage and no-fault divorce. Since then, Arizona and Arkansas have followed suit. But so far, very few of the couples marrying in those states have selected a covenant agreement rather than standard marriage in the eyes of the state -- just 2 percent in Louisiana, which is higher than in the others.
Officials in all three states said people are still unaware they have the choice. To educate those in Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee and his wife, Janet, tonight are hosting "Arkansas Celebration of Marriage" as a way to mark Valentine's Day and promote covenant marriage. They will convert their marriage to a covenant marriage at the event in North Little Rock's Alltel Arena, and the goal is to have 1,000 other couples do the same after learning more about it.
Kelly Johnson stressed that she does not question the commitment of those who have standard marriages, but she believes it is "marriage light."
"Covenant marriage is heavy marriage because it's harder to get out of. It's harder to get into because you have to go through a lot of counseling before you get married," she said, adding that the counseling before divorce will "hopefully mend a lot of marriages."
That was the goal of Katherine Spaht, a professor of law at Louisiana State University who was one of the authors of the Louisiana covenant marriage law. She said social scientists agree that children fare better when raised in a home with their biological parents, "so it behooves the state to do all it can to encourage a married couple with children to stay together."
Couples applying for marriage licenses can choose the option, and those already married can convert their marriages to the terms of the covenant marriage agreement.
Covenant marriages in Louisiana require premarital counseling so that couples understand the commitment they're making, and couples promise to seek more counseling if problems arise in the marriage. The only grounds for a no-fault divorce are living separately for two years. Otherwise, one spouse must cite an acceptable reason, including a felony conviction and imprisonment, adultery or physical or sexual abuse of a spouse or child.