Monday, May 22, 2000

The Love Virus

In his message upon vetoing a bill that would have provided reduced marriage license fees for couples who attended premarital counseling, Gov. Jesse Ventura wrote that he did not believe government should intervene in such personal decisions.

The bill was one of two well-publicized measures considered this year attempting to address Minnesota's increasing divorce rate. The other bill, which stalled in committee, would establish a covenant marriage option in the state, making it more difficult to obtain a divorce for couples who enter such a marriage.

This is certainly not the first time legislators have tried to make young couples think about their decision to marry or prepare for married life. In 1913, when divorce rates had not even climbed to 1 percent, Rep. Claude Southwick, a Republican from Wells, introduced a bill that would have required people to wait five days after a marriage license was issued before the wedding ceremony could be performed.

Southwick, who was single, was the city attorney of Albert Lea prior to his six-year stint as a member of the House. He had the further distinction of being one of three students who composed the first graduating class of Wells High School in 1890.

The intent behind his bill was to prevent people entering into "hasty" and "ill-considered" marriages. But not everyone agreed his bill was the solution.

C.J. Buell, who wrote several books chronicling the Minnesota Legislature in the early 1900s, said Southwick's bill was "a very good example of ill-advised attempts to remedy evil." Buell agreed with Southwick that the legislation would prevent some hasty marriages. But he argued that other ramifications would occur if the bill were to become law.

"It certainly would open the door to any evil-minded man who wanted to take advantage of an ignorant girl," Buell wrote. "To first get a license and persuade the girl that all legal requirements had been met; live with the girl five days, as his wife, and then leave her to the tender mercies of society perhaps with a child to rear, and the scorn of good people to endure."

But even more pervasive, Buell wrote, was the bill's provision proposing to abolish common law marriages in the state. That type of marriage, which was common in Europe during the Middle Ages, was a marriage undertaken without either a civil or religious ceremony. In a common law marriage, both partners for legal purposes are considered "married" after a period of living together as a couple.

Recognizing common law marriages as legal marriages allowed wives and children to inherit property from the father and husband. Southwick said that such an arrangement led to situations where "bad women" used a common law marriage to "get part of the property of some old rounder who had died and left more money than character."

But Buell argued for the state to abolish common law marriages would have placed an undue burden on those "honest, faithful, and pure" couples who would then have to go before a minister or magistrate to have their marriage legally recognized. Buell said Southwick's bill would have denied wives the right to property and left women and children to face their remaining years in poverty and destitution.

Further, he said, that to place more requirements on becoming married would simply mean more people would ignore those requirements.

Southwick's bill failed in the House, but his efforts weren't entirely in vain. In 1941, the Legislature finally banned common law marriages in the state. That type of marriage is now recognized in only 14 states. In addition, since 1931 couples have to wait five days after applying for a marriage license before they can pick it up and walk down the aisle.

As lawmakers continue to examine government's role in marriage, perhaps Buell's words provide a common starting point.

"Marriage - the real true love union of a man and a woman - is the purest and most sacred relation in all the world," he wrote. "And what we really need is to be educated to look upon that relation in its true light, as the one most cherished hope and grandest consummation of life."

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