Proponents of same-sex unions often point to the astronomical rate of divorce among heterosexual married couples and suggest the anti-gay-marriage set go pick on statistics their own size.
The traditional marriage camp, it seems, has accepted the dare.
The Family Foundation, the statewide organization that spearheaded last year's constitutional amendment reinforcing Virginia's gay-marriage ban, convened the first meeting of its Marriage Commission July 12.
The 15-person panel, stocked with lawyers, activists, counselors, academics and representatives from the offices of the attorney general and the lieutenant governor, is fed up with reports that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, up from about 15 percent in 1960. The number of children born outside of wedlock has grown from 5 percent to 37 percent over the same period.
To combat such statistics, the group's ultimate goal is to "do anything that can be done legislatively to ensure the likelihood that a marriage will last," says Victoria Cobb, the foundation's executive director.
"Good for them," says Jay Squires, chairman of the board for Equality Virginia, a gay-rights group. "Our point always was that offering couples in a committed relationship legal protections that come with marriage is important. And it's important for couples in that sort of relationship with that legal recognition to stay there. They are in favor of marriage, and so are we."
Donald K. Butler, who's been practicing family law in Richmond for 37 years, thinks the success of the project depends on how far it goes.
"If they're talking about counseling or resources to avoid divorce or bad marriage, that's great, because then there's someone other than the church doing it, and it'll be more widely available," Butler says. "But if they think that it will serve a useful purpose to put up legal barriers, they're kidding themselves."
Eliminating no-fault divorce entirely or requiring a longer period of separation will not be as effective as counseling beforehand, Butler says. Right now, to dissolve a marriage, a couple must be separated for one year, unless they have a settlement agreement and no children, in which case it's six months. In cases of adultery, there's no waiting period.
"The state is not going to prevent a couple that is dead-set on breaking apart from having a divorce," Cobb says. "It can allow people more time, thought, resources or support when they're in a time of conflict that can lead to divorce."
Cobb says it's too soon to say what conclusions the panel will reach. One big surprise at the meeting was the statistic that marriages in which couples have college degrees have a greater chance of success. She points out that Texas has recently redirected federal poverty-fighting funds for marriage counseling, while other states have reduced the marriage license fee to offset the cost of pre-marriage counseling. S