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In four states (Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, and Louisiana) of the United States, a covenant marriage is a legally distinct kind of marriage, in which the marrying couple agree to obtain pre-marital counseling and accept more limited grounds for divorce.
The movement sets out to promote and strengthen marriages, reduce the rate of divorce, lessen the number of children born out of wedlock, discourage cohabitation, and frame marriage as an honorable and desirable institution. As a law, covenant marriage is technically written neutrally with respect to religion, however it quickly became marked as a religious form of marriage, due to its historical background.
The term covenant, which surfaced in Western law, theology, and ethics, today is being used as a device to highlight more powerful dimensions of marriage. According to Covenant Marriage proponents, the term "covenant" appears 286 times in the Hebrew Bible, 24 times in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, and 26 times in the Qu’ran, proving to be an integral part of scriptural significance. Covenant is an ancient and religiously laden term that reaches far beyond the realm of marriage. Scholar Michael Lawler defines a covenant as “the standard term for making a covenant, likhrot berit, literally to cut a covenant, derives from an ancient ritual of covenant-making in which an animal was cut in half, the covenanting parties walked between the two halves. And the halves were then bound together”. Covenants are believed to unite individuals as one, expecting both parties to uphold moral and legal faithfulness towards the covenant.
During the 1980s and 1990s, divorce became increasingly common. A greater number of marriages ended in divorce than in death or widowhood during that time. Additionally, having children out of wedlock became more common and accepted. A wider variety of life choices became more acceptable within modern society: traditional marriage was only one of these options.
By 1970, the U.S. census estimated that there were 520,000 unmarried heterosexual couples living together and by 1998 that number had increased to 4.2 million, with half of the cohabitants having never been married. In the mid-1990s, efforts were made to promote marriage as part of the emerging marriage movement.
Most significant was 1996, in which congressional reforms were passed concerning the welfare system in regards to unmarried births and decline in marriage. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) suggested that the increase in unmarried births and lowered marriage rates were being caused by social problems that were endangering the country. This act spurred marriage promotion on the state level until George W. Bush was elected U.S. President in 2000, and the issue was then nationally promoted.
The overarching goal of the movement currently in the United States is to strengthen and promote marriage throughout the country. Policy makers and private interest groups who seek to advance the movement encourage marriage according to the belief that marriage lowers poverty rates, therefore reducing the number of people on welfare.
Divorce is also discouraged on the grounds that divorce increases the poverty of women and inflicts psychological and social damage on children. Childbirth within marriage is promoted as well for the reason that two adults can bring more financial and emotional resources to the upbringing of children than just one.
As a result of the social and political changes that have occurred in the United States, the movement seeks to inform couples of the seriousness and permanence of marriage. This way marital separation can be avoided by assisting couples in understanding the full implications of getting married.
The covenant is complete after the couple attends premarital counseling, followed by the signing of a document, entitled the "Declaration of Intent", which obligates the couples to reveal any knowledge that they feel might put their future marriage in jeopardy. The declaration also includes a promise to preserve their marriage if marital difficulties arise.
It is more difficult for couples who have a legal covenant marriage to obtain a divorce. Cause for divorce is typically limited to domestic violence, a felony with jail time, or adultery; however, these restrictions do not apply if one or both spouses file for divorce in a state that does not recognize covenant marriages. To date, the number of couples choosing covenant marriage in the states where it is an option has ranged between 1 and 3 percent of all marriages.
While prenuptial agreements governing the resolutions of issues in a divorce, and to a lesser extent, calling for alternative dispute resolution in a divorce, have sometimes been upheld, pre-nuptial agreements have generally not been held to permit alteration of the grounds upon which the parties may obtain a divorce. Therefore, covenant marriage cannot generally be secured without statutory assistance.
In 1997, Louisiana became the first state to create covenant marriage as a legal category; since then Arkansas, Arizona, and Kansas have followed suit. People who are already married in these states may change their marriage to a covenant marriage.
Legislation has been introduced to create legal covenant marriage in a number of other states, including California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia; these efforts have not to date been successful.