Legislation aimed at reducing the divorce rate by having couples read a marriage guide before their nuptials is making its way through the Legislature — though at least one Democrat has raised concerns about conservative ideology tainting the document.
The “Healthy Marriage Guide” (HB 1323) is sponsored in the House by Republicans Clay Yarborough of Jacksonville and Danny Burgess of Zephyrhills. It would contain resources addressing “conflict management, communication skills, family expectations, financial responsibilities and management, domestic violence resources, and parenting responsibilities.”
The bill calls for the guide to be written by what its sponsors are calling “The Marriage Education Committee,” which would consist of a panel of six marriage education and family advocates, two picked by the Governor, two by the Senate President, and two more by the House Speaker.
This would not be the first statewide sanctioned document giving advice to soon-to-be-married couples. In 1998, the Legislature passed a bill calling for the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar and the Florida Supreme Court to publish the “Florida Family Law Handbook.” Couples about to get married at a county clerk’s office have to acknowledge that they have read the handbook (or similar material) before getting their marriage license. Yarborough said the new handbook would act as a supplement — “a positive counterbalance” — to the handbook.
The “Healthy Marriage Guide” would not be a required read before marriage and it would not cost taxpayers. Clerks of the courts could provide the information on their website.
Like so many other bill, it’s not an original idea, as six other states have similar guides, Yarborourgh told the House Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee.
Some critics have questioned the need for the bill because the divorce rate is actually falling in Florida. Yarborough questioned that assumption, however, saying that the percentage of divorce is dropping but with the population continuing to increase in the state, the number of divorces continues to hover around 80,000, compared to 167,000 marriages in 2016.
Christian conservative activist John Stemberger enthusiastically endorsed the bill, saying the government does have a compelling interest in the strength of marriage and family structures.
“The problem we have now is that an enormous number of our citizens are growing up in either single-parent homes or in a situation where they don’t get to observe two people resolving conflict, doing life together, communicating, so they lack basic skills,” said Stemberger.
But Cutler Bay Democrat Kionne McGhee said he had serious concerns about the potential for a conservative slant in the guide.
“This is an attempt to use an ideology to overpower people’s ideas and thoughts,” McGhee said, adding that “I actually honestly believe that it’s being used – and we’re going to use our government agencies like clerk of court to carry out right-wing ideology to destroy the sanctity of marriage and parenting, and I think that is a very, very dangerous thing that we have to guard against.”
Sitting next to McGhee, Charlotte Republican Michael Grant said that while he disagreed with his Democratic colleague’s analysis, he suggested to Yarborough to add an amendment to the bill that would include the ranking Democratic members of the House and Senate to address such concerns.
Sarasota Republican Julio Gonzalez didn’t react so well to McGhee’s charges, calling it “one of the saddest displays I’ve seen in this chamber.”
“Not everything happens to be political,” he riposted, adding that the discussion that McGhee had engaged in was about partisanship, not about a political ideology.
“I think this is something that the left and the right must agree with,” Gonzalez continued, reading off some of the issues that the guide would address. “To say that we have to turn this into a partisan issue to me blows my mind.”
Yarborough said that he would contemplate adding an amendment to the bill that would guarantee that members of both parties would be able to nominate the members who would write the guide.
The bill’s Senate companion sponsored by Lakeland Republican Kelli Stargel will come before the Judiciary Committee later on Tuesday.