By Dan Holtmeyer
OKLAHOMA CITY — A pair of proposals by conservatives aimed at making divorce more difficult in Oklahoma are advancing through the Legislature, but some experts and research are casting doubt on whether they could lower one of the more consistently high state divorce rates in the nation.
The House Judiciary Committee approved both bills Tuesday, each with a 10-6 vote and all five Democrat members opposed. They have already cleared the Senate and now move to the full House for consideration.
One bill creates a "covenant marriage" option for Oklahoma and requires couples to receive counseling before marriages and more counseling if they want to divorce because of incompatibility. The second proposal, backed by Rep. Jason Nelson, would require all divorcing couples with children to undergo an education program on divorce's effects.
Both are aimed squarely at Oklahoma's divorce rate, which at 5.2 divorces per 1,000 residents outpaced all but three states in 2011, the latest year of available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Vital Statistics System. The national average that year was 3.6 divorces per 1,000 people.
"Our divorce rate is way too high, not to be critical of anybody who's gotten a divorce," Sen. Rob Strandridge, who first introduced the measure concerning divorce education programs, told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
Arizona, Arkansas and Louisiana are the only states currently offering covenant marriages, though several others have considered it. Their track record is mixed. Arkansas' divorce rate is still higher than Oklahoma's. Arizona's rate has decreased in the past decade, but the rest of the country also has seen similar reductions.
The Oklahoma proposal was originally more stringent, reducing the number of valid reasons for divorce from 12 to 5. That provision has since been replaced, restoring all of the options but requiring more counseling when a couple in a covenant marriage cites incompatibility for their divorce.
The impact of covenant marriage on divorce is minimal, researchers say, partly because so few people — often less than 5 percent — choose the option.
"When push came to shove, people were perfectly satisfied with the existing marriage laws," said Susan Brown, the co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Brown studied covenant marriage in Louisiana in a 2006 paper published in Social Science Research and found the option had no effect on divorce likelihood, largely because the people choosing it were already less likely to divorce.
Alan Hawkins, professor at Brigham Young University's College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, said more than a decade ago he believed covenant marriage would be popular and would lower divorce. Research since then has changed his mind, he told the AP on Tuesday.
"I still think that it brings together some very rational ideas about ways that we could reform divorce laws in some effective ways," Hawkins said. "But I'm not as optimistic about what it can do."
Nelson's bill on divorce education could have more of an effect, Hawkins said. Current Oklahoma law gives district judges the option of ordering programs covering co-parenting and the impact of divorce on children, and the form of education — whether a half-hour video or four-hour session — is largely up to the district. Nelson's bill would require that education in every case.
Hawkins said he teaches similar classes in Utah, which he called "divorce orientation," and that sometimes those classes push couples to reconsider their decision.
"Ten to 20 percent will say, 'I'm going to reconsider this decision to divorce and I'm going to make an effort to try and repair my marriage,'" Hawkins said, though he hasn't followed through on those couples to see if their change of heart lasts. He added education might change more minds if it happened sooner.
Some members of the House committee questioned whether every county could afford the education. Nelson said he believed the programs were readily available and inexpensive.
Indeed, if a state wants to lower divorce, education on healthy and strong relationships may be the only surefire method, said Galena Rhoades, a professor at the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies.
"I do believe that policies that provide skills can impact the number of couples that divorce," Rhoades said. "It makes sense to me that couples who do more to get more education, get more training, get more skills on how to have happier and healthier relationships are probably going to do better."
She added Oklahoma was a national leader in terms of that kind of education and the state's actions on divorce policy would be closely watched.
"I think all eyes on the issue will likely be tuned to Oklahoma and what's happening there," Rhoades said. "It'll be really interesting to see what you all do."