Touching on a sensitive issue among conservatives nationwide, the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature is embroiled in a dispute over whether lawmakers should remain focused on the state's budget problems and other fiscal priorities or delve into family issues, especially the state's chronically high divorce rate.
Republican members proposed three pieces of legislation imposing new regulations on marriage and divorce in Oklahoma. Two of the measures were defeated, but another — requiring counseling for those planning to wed, and therapy sessions for couples considering divorce — is awaiting action.
The issue has produced sharp clashes among conservative colleagues who normally find themselves in agreement. The debates have featured charges of hypocrisy and of betraying Republican principles against government intrusion into private lives.
"How far do I want government to come into my home and your home about private personal matters?" asked Rep. Leslie Osborn, a Republican from Tuttle, in a debate. She referred to state government as a "huge monster."
But supporters of the new divorce legislation insisted it was a valid area for government action.
"The intervention is minimal," said Rep. Mark McCullough, a Republican from Sapulpa. "It might provide a little benefit up front to newly married couples," McCullough said. And for couples on the edge of divorce, "It could very well satisfy a compelling government interest. It's a terrible crisis."
The clash corresponds with an ideological fault line between fiscal and social conservatives. Similar debates have played out in other legislatures over measures involving gay marriage and women's reproductive rights.
But in Oklahoma, the divorce problem is a particular flashpoint.
The most recent federal health statistics in 2007 show the state has the third highest divorce rate in the nation, behind only Nevada and Arkansas. More than half of marriages in Oklahoma end in divorce. In 2007 there were 28,419 marriages and 18,851 divorces.
The divorce problem, which is attributed in part to poverty, teenage pregnancy and a tradition of marrying early, is particularly bedeviling because Oklahoma also has one of the highest rates of church attendance. Promoting family values is a staple of political campaigns at all levels.
After Republicans won control of both houses of the Legislature in 2008, they pressed forward with a conservative fiscal agenda.
The Legislature struggled with a $665 million budget hole this session, but some members argued that the divorce problem was contributing to the financial woes.
A study released in 2008 by the Institute for American Values, a private, nonpartisan research group in New York City, estimated the taxpayer cost of divorce and unwed childbearing at $112 billion a year nationwide.
The Legislature debated a bill to require troubled couples to visit a therapist or a faith-based counselor before seeking to end their marriage and another to eliminate incompatibility as grounds for divorce if the couple has children or has been married 10 years or more. Neither were approved, but McCullough's measure to require pre-marriage and troubled-marriage counseling remains alive.
"The more dysfunction you stop up the stream the less you will have to spend down the stream. We need to take this seriously," McCullough said.
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a conservative public policy foundation in Washington, D.C., said he endorsed efforts to address divorce but that direct government involvement should be avoided. States could perhaps offer a "covenant marriage" in which couples voluntarily entered extensive pre-marriage counseling and limited their options when seeking a divorce. McCullough's bill includes such a covenant provision.
"I prefer the carrot versus the stick," Perkins said. "It's a good thing. It's needed. We've got to break the cycle of divorce. But I don't think we should mandate it."
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