By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
It's kind of like a get-out-of-jail free card, except you end up married.
Come Sept. 1, the state fee for marriage licenses will double from $30 to $60. But there's a way not to pay.
Nuptial-minded Texans can choose to take an eight-hour premarital education course to qualify for a fee waiver.
Called the Twogether in Texas Healthy Marriage Program, the law's goal is to save taxpayers money.
'With the frequency of divorce and the problems we have with marriage in this state, it's time somebody addressed the problem,' said the law's author, State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, in a recent address to Austin legislators.
With 80,000 divorces each year, Texas spends at least $8 billion in family-fragmentation programs, according to a study conducted in 2006 by Georgia College.
'It's a taxation issue. If we can promote healthy marriages, then the cost of entitlement programs will be reduced,' said Christen Wohlgemuln, Chisum's legislative director. 'Good, solid marriages will save taxpayers money in programs that cater to broken-up families like welfare, Medicaid and food stamps.'
To accomplish the goal, Twogether will look to premarital education in the form of an eight-hour, skill-based course. The benefits of such programs, Ms. Wohlgemuln said, have long been recognized and documented in social research. 'The curriculum has three components - communication techniques, conflict management and the key components of successful marriage,' said Patricia Polega, director of marriages for Lutheran Social Services in Austin, the group the state selected to spearhead the Twogether program throughout the Temple-to-Austin region. 'It's not based on religion or spiritual concepts. It's research driven.'
With $16 million allocated for its cause, the Twogether program will have several representatives stationed throughout the state to administer the course.
In Bell County, Ms. Polega said potential class sites include the Bell County Help Center, one of the YMCAs in Killeen and the Harker Heights Police Department. Schedules are not set.
Class times could vary from eight straight hours on a Saturday to two hours a day for four days across a span of two weeks.
'We're hoping that one of the Bell County classes will take place every month at the same time and location,' Ms. Polega said.
To get the fee waiver, couples must spend at least eight hours studying the state-mandated topics. Additional course hours to address the spiritual and religious aspects of marriage will be available at the couple's request.
Certificates of course completion will be due at the time the couple applies for a marriage license, according to Geoff Wool of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the state department that oversees licensures.
Premarital education programs offered through churches and faith-based groups will qualify couples for the fee waiver only if they get Twogether's stamp of approval.
'Churches need to send us a copy of the program they follow, so that we can make sure it covers everything the state has mandated,' Ms. Polega said. 'Once we look it over, we'll either certify it or request that changes be made.'
To start the course-qualifying process, churches should call the Twogether staff of Lutheran Social Services at 800-396-4611.
The Catholic Diocese of Austin has already submitted its premarital program for review.
'We sent in 'Together in God's Image,' the lessons we use,' said Dr. Joseph White, director of family counseling and family life. 'If it gets approved, then couples will be able to get their license for free, but if they suggest we change it, we'll have to determine if that course of action will support our mission. We want our couples to take advantage of the fee waiver, of course, but we also want to make sure that we hold true to our doctrine and mission.'
The area divisions of the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church have not yet done so because representatives said they didn't know about Twogether in Texas.
Neither do Temple churches.
'Hmmm. I didn't know a thing about that,' said Sally Louth, administrator at Christ Episcopal Church in Temple. 'It sounds like a good idea, and it might be something we'd want to incorporate, but I couldn't say for sure.'
Pastor Pat Dietrich of First Lutheran Church in Temple was just as surprised.
'No. I hadn't heard a thing,' she said.
Comments like these came in dozens as area churches were polled.
News of Twogether's existence is just now getting to Bell County officials. The Bell County Commissioners Court learned of it on Monday. Martha Cookward from Lutheran Social Services presented a slideshow that highlighted program concepts.
'I don't have an opinion on it,' said Bell County Judge Jon Burrows. 'We got a briefing on how it was and how it would work. I know that it's state mandated, but other than that, I don't have any idea about the specifics.'
Jeannette Compean, Bell County vital statistics deputy clerk at the Belton Courthouse Annex - the place where local couples apply for marriage licenses - received preliminary training on Twogether earlier this month.
'As of Sept. 1, people will be able to dial 211 on their telephones and get basic information about Twogether in Texas,' Ms. Compean said, adding that details on premarital class schedules will also be available. Outlined in most phone books, 211 is an information line for state Health and Human Services.