The key to a lower divorce rate and healthier marriages starts before the vows are taken, according to advocates for mandatory premarital counseling.

Many states, including Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Arizona, have laws in place that provide economic incentives for couples who attend a specified number of hours of marriage education. Citing research proving the success of premarital counseling in reducing long-term divorce rates, some organizations are pushing for legislation that provides even more reasons for couples to attend premarital education.

In Florida, the Marriage Preparation Act proposes to raise the price of a marriage license by a $100 fee that can be waived if the couple attends eight hours of premarital counseling. It also raises the number of required hours from four to eight and promotes a premarital inventory test as part of the education. The act, which increases the statute already in place, is supported by the Christian Coalition of Palm Beach County and the Florida Family Policy Council, both Christian organizations that promote pro-life and traditional marriage legislation in the state.

However, couples seeking premarital education can choose a "secular" version, as well, potentially raising questions about just what defines premarital counseling. Some popular marriage inventory services, such as FOCCUS, provide "general" and "Christian" versions. The marriage handbook provided by Florida State steers clear of religious overtones, instead emphasizing the magnitude of marriage through lessons on divorce's economic and legal impact.

Opponents complain that the act is equal to cash in the pockets of the church, because while the required premarital counseling does not necessarily have to be Christian, much premarital counseling comes from that perspective. In Texas, for instance, where the license fee is similarly reduced after eight hours of premarital education, a list of approved classes indicates that many - though not all - counselors are based out of a variety of denominational churches (categorized as "faith-based organizations"). It's hardly a monopoly, though it makes sense that since Christians respect the institution of marriage, they would be actively seeking the tools to make it to work.

Other faith-based organizations, such as Marriage Savers, are avoiding the legal system by creating partnerships between local churches. Its Community Marriage Policy (CMP) requires local clergy to "sign a covenant agreeing not to marry any couple who has not had a specified, substantial amount of pre-marital counseling." More than 200 communities have active CMPs, according to its website, and the organization was featured on ABC News in 2007.

What do you think? Is state-based legislation the most effective way for Christians to promote healthy marriages and counteract the staggering rate of divorce in the U.S.?

Alicia Cohn is an intern at Christianity Today magazine. She has written previous blog posts for Her.meneutics on the Breast Cancer Bible and The Stoning of Soraya M.