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In State's Premarital Counseling Program, Few Options for Gay Couples

Many of the providers in a state program that gives engaged Texans a discount on a marriage license if they take a premarital counseling course do not plan to open up the classes to same-sex couples.

The state's Twogether in Texas program grants couples a $60 discount on a marriage license if they take a premarital education class from the state's network of providers, most of which are faith-based groups. Many providers don't plan to open their classes to same-sex couples.

In 2007, Texas lawmakers decided they wanted to encourage engaged couples to take a premarital education class before tying the knot. The program they created, Twogether in Texas, provides couples a $60 discount on a marriage license if they take a class from one of more than 2,500 providers statewide, most of them churches or other faith-based groups.

But despite last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, same-sex couples may find it a challenge to take advantage of the state’s offer to save money and strengthen their relationship. Many of the organizations in the Twogether in Texas network are not planning to open classes to same-sex couples, according to interviews with dozens of registered providers around the state.

“We’re going to continue with what we believe the biblical foundation of marriage is, and we’re going to continue to convey that thought process as believers,” said Pastor Charlie Biggurs of Abundant Grace Christian Center in Lancaster.

The classes are designed to encourage couples to tackle issues like how they will resolve conflicts and manage finances once they are married.

“Unfortunately people wait and go see a counselor for the relationship after it’s already hit a very low mark,” said Brian Wingfield, a therapist at the Samaritan Counseling Center of West Texas, a faith-based counseling center in Midland that is a registered Twogether in Texas provider. He said the center’s premarital classes are open to same-sex couples.

The program was championed in the Legislature in 2007 by then-state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who predicted that incentivizing Texans to take the classes would lead to fewer divorces.

“This is not just counseling. This is education," Chisum said at the time, according to The Associated Press. "Hopefully it will make those marriages last.”

To ensure that the program didn’t lead to a loss of state revenue, lawmakers doubled the state portion of marriage license fees from $30 to $60. (Many counties also add a local fee to the cost of the license.) The measure passed despite criticism, largely from Democrats who derided it as a “marriage tax.”

The state does not track specifically how many couples receive the discount, but state data on the number of marriage licenses issued and marriage license revenue collected indicates most couples choose to pay the higher fee. As a result, the program has turned out to be a revenue generator for the state.

Anecdotally, state officials and various providers say the program has seen an increase in participants over the years.

“We do get a lot more people who have at least heard of it,” said Jennifer Acker with the Parenting Center, a nonprofit counseling organization in Fort Worth. “But we do still have a whole lot of couples who don’t hear about it until the last minute, so they’re scrambling to try to get into a class.”

Class providers include churches, psychologists, counseling organizations and for-profit companies. More than two-thirds of the providers are categorized by the state as either a faith-based organization or “clergy/faith leader.”

Biggurs said he and his wife teach premarital classes with individual couples. He estimated they have taught five couples so far this year.

“We talk about crisis and communications, finances in marriage, sex in marriage,” Biggurs said. “We also talk about roles and responsibilities and God’s equation for marriage.”

Some groups charge a fee for the classes while others don’t. Some are only available to members of the religious institution hosting the class. The state's provider network is made up of organizations that apply to be on it and that offer a curriculum that meets the state's minimum requirements. The state does not currently provide funding to providers.

The Catholic Diocese of El Paso oversees Twogether in Texas classes offered through Catholic institutions throughout West Texas. About 100 couples participate in those classes each year, according to Deacon Frank Segura. Couples do not need to be affiliated with a church to participate. The diocese has no plans to allow same-sex couples in the classes, Segura said.

The same goes for God’s Household of Faith, an evangelical church in Dickinson between Houston and Galveston. Pastor S. Mark Haywood II said the church was exercising its First Amendment right to freedom of religion in its decision to not provide Twogether counseling services to same-sex couples.

“Our particular church does not believe in gay marriage, so we do not do premarital counseling for gay couples,” Haywood said.

Religious organizations shouldn’t be allowed to make such choices if they are participating in a state program, said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as fighting initiatives backed by the state's religious right.

“I think the fundamental issue is that the Supreme Court’s ruling said that same-sex marriages can’t be treated differently than opposite-sex marriages with respect to rights, benefits and responsibilities,” Miller said. “A discount on your marriage license is clearly a benefit, and the state should not endorse providers that do not follow the Supreme Court’s ruling with respect to gay and lesbian weddings.”

Some faith-based providers said they are currently debating whether to allow same-sex couples to participate in their marriage counseling services.

“We are in the midst of that conversation right now,” said Steven Adair, the lead pastor at the Grace Christian Fellowship in Odessa. “We want to honor what we believe is our truth, but we also want to live within grace. … Who knows where we will end up?”

Rabbi Dan Gordon of Temple Beth Torah in Humble, who independently offers counseling services in the Houston area, said he would be willing to counsel same-sex couples through the program.

“If people are devoting themselves to each other, then the idea of working through issues before they finalize that seems to make sense whether they’re same gender or opposite gender,” he said.

At the Parenting Center in Fort Worth, classes eligible for the state’s marriage license discount are open to straight and gay couples, Acker said. She recalled a same-sex couple who once used their course completion certificate from the center to get a discount on a marriage license in another state that had a program similar to Twogether in Texas and where gay marriage was already legal.

“Our philosophy on these classes are these are healthy relationship skills that we are teaching that can be used in any relationship,” Acker said.

Miller said her original concerns about Twogether in Texas — that providers would be able to exclude some participants — are amplified with the legalization of same-sex marriage.

“What we are seeing is precisely what we warned: Religion would be used in ways that shuts some people out and welcomes others,” Miller said.

Chisum, who helped create the program while a member of the House and is now a lobbyist, said providers should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they allow same-sex couples in their classes. Though he himself has a religious objection to same-sex marriage, he said he wants the program to continue its goal of reducing divorces statewide.

“We have to deal with reality,” Chisum said. "Whatever kind of marriages we have here, once we commit to it, we should stick to it."

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