Foundation Goes To Court Over “Marriage Savers” Law (Jan/Feb 2000)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit on Dec. 20 in U.S. District Court, western district of Wisconsin, challenging an unconstitutional item in the Wisconsin state budget authorizing $210,000 in public money for the purpose of “assisting local members of the clergy to develop community-wide standards of marriages.”

The lawsuit, which has been assigned to Federal Judge John Shabaz, names as defendants: Joe Leean, Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Health & Family Services; Susan Dreyfus, Administrator, Division of Children & Family Services, Department of Health & Family Services, and George Lightbourne, Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Administration.

The lawsuit contends that the plaintiffs–the Foundation, its Wisconsin membership and staff members Anne Nicol Gaylor, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor–are “injured by the impermissible advancement and support of religion caused by the use of state-controlled funds devoted exclusively to members of the clergy.”

The lawsuit also lists as co-plaintiff the Rev. Charles Wolfe, minister for Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, Madison, who is “injured by the state’s impermissible interference with his authority to determine the appropriate marriage standards for members of his congregation.”

The lawsuit charges that the Marriage Savers budget allotment violates both the Establishment and the Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, as well as the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

The budget item, submitted by Wisconsin Speaker of the House Scott Jensen, was not subject to public notification or debate. It authorizes $210,000 in federal funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to pay for a two-year salary for a clergy coordinator. That money was intended to pay for such items as childcare for the poor.

Jensen, boasting that Wisconsin would be the first state in the nation to fund such a religious position, openly stated that the position will be promoting the “Marriage Savers” philosophy. Jensen had invited Marriage Savers founder Mike McManus to the State Capitol last year, where he and his wife told a small number of legislators about the church program. They revealed this was the first time they had been invited to talk with any legislators.

Marriage Savers is an exclusively Christian organization with an exclusively Christian board which works exclusively with clergy to inaugurate Scripture-based premarital counseling of at least four months’ duration, mentoring by church couples, an extensive “inventory” questionnaire, prayer and similar activities which are required before couples can receive a church wedding.

A “premarital covenant” requires that couples who are sexually intimate or living together forswear such activities before clergy will marry them. It makes grandiose claims of success, and has received much press coverage–aided by Board member George Gallup and the contacts of its founder Mike McManus, a syndicated columnist.

McManus and minions have openly conceded almost none of their would-be recruits is following the program. At the group’s annual convention last summer, McManus said he had to conclude that nearly all the clergy in the program “are doing little or nothing to fulfill their pledge in the Community Marriage Policy.” A “Wilmington Community Marriage Policy” signed March 1997, also noted: “Candidly, there are not very many Marriage Saver churches in the United States at present. . . . we must report that we know of less than 10 congregations which are full-fledged Marriage Saver churches.”

Unfavorable press followed the revelation last November that the religious item had been sneaked into the state budget. The Christian Science Monitor sent a reporter to Madison, Wisconsin, who interviewed Foundation staff among others, and included the Foundation’s criticism of the plan in her report. Commentator George Hesselberg wrote a column for the Wisconsin State Journal challenging Marriage Saver assertions, including McManus’s outlandish claim that Marriage Savers would cut the Wisconsin divorce rate in half by the year 2010. Hesselberg pointed out “the divorce rate in Wisconsin has been falling steadily since 1990, without the help of ‘Marriage Savers.’ The rate has fallen nearly 10 percent in the last nine years.”

“The state’s position as the 13th Disciple may come as a shock to some marriage counselors and to many churches who would rather the government stay the heaven out of religious business,” wrote Hesselberg.

The Foundation also drew media attention to an Associated Press story which ran in 1998 showing that the marriage rate dropped precipitately when a born-again judge in Lenawee County, Michigan, persuaded all judges to agree not to marry couples unless they go to a church counselor. The report showed that the divorce rate had remained the same, but marriages in the county had dropped–because couples were “fleeing the county” to marry elsewhere.

Marriage Savers charges churches for training, books and videos, and churches in turn would be expected to charge couples for the premarital counseling.

“Once again, Scott Jensen is saying that the answer to complex personal and social problems, such as divorce, is to throw public money at religion–in violation of our Constitution and despite the evidence. Born agains in fact have a higher rate of divorce,” said Anne Gaylor, Foundation president.

Census bureau statistics show that the Bible Belt has the nation’s highest divorce rates, 50% above the national average. Statistics from the Barna Research Group, run by born-again George Barna, also show that born-again Christians have a higher divorce rate than nonChristians.

“If individual clergy and churches wish to impose Marriage Savers requirements upon their congregations, okay. But it absolutely is not the business of the state to promote or endorse such requirements–much less to pay someone to coordinate clergy conduct,” Gaylor added.

The State, after requesting a delay, has until Feb. 4 to answer the Foundation’s legal complaint. No one has been hired to fill the position. The State has not even listed the job.

The Foundation and its plaintiffs are represented by James Friedman of LaFollette & Sinykin

Freedom From Religion Foundation