BOISE – Idaho could enact a “covenant marriage” law to discourage divorce, encourage more premarital counseling, rethink domestic violence restraining order laws and require a “family impact statement” on every legislative bill, if the Legislature follows up on all the recommendations of its “Family Task Force.”
But task force Chairman Rep. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said he’ll be happy if his committee’s work just brings more awareness to family issues. “A lot of what we suggested was to stimulate the discussion, rather than any specific legislation,” Thayn said.
He chaired a task force that consisted of six House members, who held three hearings around the state over the summer and fall. The panel’s official charge: “To study the magnitude of the decline of the family since 1950; the effects the decline has had on state social policies; the reasons for the decline, and ways to strengthen the family.”
Boise State University political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, who has watched the Idaho Legislature for decades, said, “I don’t remember a committee similar to this that was so lopsided to the right.” But, he said, “It’s been a long time since the House has had a conservative speaker like Lawerence Denney.”
Thayn said that when he proposed the task force to Denney, “he was supportive.”
But Denney, in a recent interview, said he thinks it’s unlikely that the group’s work will result in any legislation.
“I think probably some of their findings were tainted by the passion of the chairman. … I think he got ahead of his committee a little bit,” Denney said.
“But, you know, they still, I think, did raise the awareness of the importance of the family, and the fact that many of the policy decisions we make do affect the family,” Denney said. “So I think even if there’s no legislation, I think there’s still good that can come out of that.”
Only three states, Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona, currently have covenant marriage laws. The laws offer a voluntary type of marriage that requires premarital counseling, followed by a commitment for life. Divorce can be granted only for a few reasons, including adultery, abuse and felony incarceration.
“If we can reduce the trauma of divorce on kids, we’d be better off,” Thayn said. “Some marriages need to end, I mean if there’s violence, if there’s drug addiction, if there’s abuse. But many divorces are not for those reasons.”
Thayn said it’s worth looking at any possible improvements to Idaho’s laws. “I’m not so sure we’ve really studied divorce laws much in the last 30 years,” he said. “It’s just something we need to look at again.”
The panel’s recommendations also include a review of domestic violence restraining order laws and policies. Thayn said that was prompted by a case involving his own son, Damon, who was arrested for physically assaulting his wife. The court imposed a three-month restraining order even though neither spouse wanted it, Thayn said.
“It seemed a little Draconian,” he said. “It caused some real problems on my son and his wife who were wanting to make their marriage work.”
Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, proposed the family impact statement for legislative bills, “because right now we don’t really think about the family when we’re doing a bill,” he said.
Harwood said, “You have mental illness, you have abuse, you have drug problems, alcohol problems, things like that. And you can kind of relate all that back to the breakdown of the family, if you really look at it real close.”
The family task force formed after the House declined to participate in a Senate interim committee looking at early childhood education issues. Thayn said his task force decided not to discuss early childhood education since the Senate panel was dealing with it.
Thayn said his group didn’t end up focusing much on what the American family was like in 1950. “We wanted to include all families,” he said. “What we focused in on was the relationship between the parent and the child … to encourage that bond between parent and child. That seems to be the real important key. A lot of single mothers do a pretty good job, and some traditional families don’t.”
Also among the task force’s 14 recommendations are more parenting education and character education, encouraging more premarital counseling, a voluntary quality rating system for day care centers, and requiring welfare recipients to work toward personal goals.
Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, the lone Democrat on the task force, said he’s working on a minority report. “The society that we have now is so much more diversified than it was even 15 or 20 years ago,” he said. “I was disturbed just from a fundamental level on kind of the premise of the committee.”
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