Would $100 marriage-license fee help prevent divorce?

  • by: Jeff Kunerth 03/18/09

The leader of the movement to ban same-sex marriage in Florida now wants to make it harder and more expensive for heterosexual couples to marry — and divorce.

Just as he says gay unions would undercut the institution of marriage, John Stemberger thinks the casual way people get married and the ease by which they can divorce threatens the foundation of society. His goal is to change that.

"Harder to get in and harder to get out," said Stemberger, head of the Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council.

Stemberger's "Strong Marriages Campaign" is promoting a Premarital Preparation bill before the Florida Legislature that would add $100 to the state's marriage-license fee. Those who attend eight hours of premarital counseling would get their money back.

Money not returned to couples would go into a Marriage Education Trust Fund, which would provide grants to premarital counseling groups.

The Florida Senate's committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs is scheduled to have a hearing today on the creation of the trust fund.

Stemberger hopes to repeat the success he had with the passage of Amendment 2 in November, which added the ban on gay marriage to the Florida Constitution.

"Basically, when we succeeded with Amendment 2, we asked ourselves: What do we want to do next?" Stemberger said. "We wanted to do something big."

Part of Stemberger's selling point in the bill to raise the requirements for marriage is that divorce is costly for the state because it results in poverty programs for households headed by single women. A 10percent reduction of Florida's 86,000 divorces a year would save the state $100 million a year, he said.

Critics contend Stemberger is using the state's budget crunch to push a conservative Christian religious ideology disguised as public policy. Most children living in poverty are not the products of divorce but of unwed mothers, said Judith Stacey, a sociology professor at New York University.

"There is no way that is going to make a dent in unwed childbirths," said Stacey, who has studied the stronger-marriage movement. "This is not going to save the state a dime."

The marriage trust fund, which would be administered by the Department of Children and Families, would funnel money into faith-based organizations that share Stemberger's ideology, Stacey said.

The premarital counseling advocated in the Premarital Preparation bill is modeled after the Tallahassee-based Live the Life Ministries, which supports Stemberger's Strong Marriage Campaign. Live the Life uses a 150-question "premarital inventory" that identifies areas in which prospective husbands and wives agree and disagree — everything from household finances and child discipline to conflict resolution.

But the inventory also asks couples if they are living together, which counseling would discourage. In addition to divorce, Stemberger and others in the stronger-marriage movement consider unmarried couples a threat to the institution of marriage and a contributing factor to societal ills.

"Cohabitation and marriage are not equal," said Live the Life founder Richard Albertson. "The institution of marriage is so much better than cohabitation."

Stemberger said Live the Life and 12 similar "community marriage initiatives" in the state have proven to reduce divorce. Those types of organizations would be among those eligible for state funding, Stemberger said.

Other states have enacted similar laws to encourage premarital counseling. A law passed by Minnesota seven years ago has increased the number of couples receiving premarital counseling from 24 percent to 36 percent. But the majority would still rather pay the higher fees for a marriage license than go through the required 12 hours of marriage counseling.

Stemberger also wants to do away with Florida's no-fault divorce laws. His Strong Marriages Campaign is advocating a waiting period of at least a year from the time a divorce is filed until it is finalized. For couples with children, both parents would need to agree to the divorce unless abuse, abandonment or infidelity were involved.

Stacey argues that making divorce harder doesn't make marriage better. And making marriage more expensive hurts those who have the lowest marriage rates to begin with: the poor.

"One hundred dollars if you are poor is different than $100 if you are rich," she said. "If you make it harder to get married, you will have more unmarried people. And they will become poorer faster."

Jeff Kunerth can be reached at or 407-420-5392.