MONROE, Mich. - A bill that has passed the Michigan Senate and could be OK'd by the House next month might send hundreds of Michigan couples to northwest Ohio every year for their marriage licenses and nuptials.
The bill is part of a package of legislative initiatives under a program called the Family and Marriage Preservation Plan by conservative legislators sponsoring the bills.
The legislation promotes premarital counseling and would reward couples who complete such programs with a yet-to-be specified tax credit. It also touts counseling programs for couples with children considering divorce.
"My goal, and that of many of my colleagues is to see that couples are better prepared for their marriages and families. Children need to be protected from the negative effects of divorce. This legislative package does all of that," said Rep. Joanne Voorhees, a Republican from Wyoming, Mich., and lead sponsor of the package.
The package's most controversial bill would require couples who decline counseling to wait 28 days to be married after they get their marriage license. It would allow couples who have completed a premarital education course or counseling to be married within three days of obtaining their license.
Current Michigan law requires a three-day waiting period with no counseling required. Ohio has no waiting period. Both states allow couples to marry as young as 16, but 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds must have parental permission.
Many observers believe impatient couples living in southeastern Michigan near the Ohio border will head to the Buckeye State to expedite their unions.
"That would not surprise me," said Lenawee County District Judge James Sheridan, a proponent of the legislation and a marriage counselor himself who requires Lenawee County couples wanting to get married at the courthouse to have premarital counseling. "One of the realities you have is any time you put a barrier to something in front of people they immediately are going to do something different."
Probate court officials in the border counties of Lucas, Fulton, and Williams say they are not overly concerned about the potential influx of Michigan couples seeking licenses. Already, scores of Michigan couples travel south to Ohio every year to get married, they say, largely because the border counties require no waiting period.
"At this point, I think we can handle it," said Fulton County Probate Judge Michael Bumb, whose office issues about 30 marriage licenses a month.
In Lucas County, the Probate Court handed out an average of 543 marriage licenses a month last year, according to Beth Beasley, marriage bureau supervisor. Almost half of the licenses are sought by Michigan couples, she said.
"I assume it's because you can do everything in one day here."
Ms. Beasley said her office would not be concerned about an additional influx of applicants from Michigan.
"We have four clerks in this office. It doesn't take but maybe 10 minutes to type out a license if they have all their paperwork together."
County clerks in Monroe, Lenawee, and Hillsdale counties say they have Ohio couples apply for marriage licenses because their fees are cheaper - $20 in Lenawee and Hillsdale, $30 in Monroe. Lucas County charges $50.
"Maybe they don't want people to know about it," Monroe County Clerk Geri Allen said.
In Lenawee County, Judge Sheridan requires couples who want to get married at the courthouse to show proof of premarital counseling. Some county pastors and ministers also require premarital counseling as a result of an informal agreement made among them seven years ago under the guidance of Judge Sheridan and a Maryland-based group, Marriage Saviors.
Judge Sheridan said he has seen enough over his years on the bench to know that premarital counseling makes for better, long-lasting marriages. He bristles at opponents to the legislation who call him a religious fanatic.
"This is not a religious issue. It has to do with money and taxes," he said. "When marriages fail, it raises taxes for everybody. If the government doesn't want to get involved, then why does the government issue marriage licenses in the first place. If you want to keep government out of marriages, the best thing to do is to create a good marriage."
Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, who oppose the legislation, find Judge Sheridan's viewpoint disturbing.
"With all of the problems that our government has, this seems the last place they should intrude themselves," said Wendy Wagenheim, an ACLU spokesman. "While premarital counseling may be a good thing, it is certainly not the government's place to require that between consenting adults."
Ms. Wagenheim said she found it interesting that conservatives are pushing for the legislation. "It's frequently a conflict when people who call for less government are calling for more government by [delving] into personal areas of our life," she said.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm likely would veto the legislation if it remains in its present form, her spokesman Liz Boyd said.
"She feels it's far too intrusive in peoples' lives," Ms. Boyd said.
The legislative package moved out of the House Judiciary Committee on Nov. 4 and will be on the voting docket when the members return for their final session Nov. 30 sought Dec. 9, House officials said.
The package does have bipartisan support.
Rep. Doug Spade, an Adrian Democrat known as a social conservative, said he supports the bill.
"I think time will tell whether it can have any effect or not," he said. "But I thought it was worth voting for. I just don't know how far we want to go in legislating marital relationships."
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