A dozen billboards around the state that urge Georgians to "Get Married, Stay Married" are sponsored not by a church or family-values group but by the Supreme Court of Georgia through its Commission on Children, Marriage and Family Law.
Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears said that the 48-foot-wide, 14-foot-tall billboards are one of the few things a jurist can do to battle high crime rates, high divorce rates and low numbers of fathers raising their kids.
Along with the "Get Married, Stay Married" slogan, each sign shows a happy-looking mother, father and child and one of two messages: "Children do better with parents together" or "For Children's Sake."
"We paid $50,000 to get about $500,000 worth of billboard space to send this vital message," Sears said, noting that the costs of the billboards themselves were paid by the Georgia Bar Foundation and "not state money." The billboard space was donated by the Outdoor Advertising Association of Georgia, which donates unused billboard space to charitable, civic and governmental organizations.
Sears' comments came in an interview last week at a more substantive part of her crusade -- a two-day conference on marriage for about 250 lawyers, social workers, clergy people and therapists. The event was sponsored by the high court's commission and the New York-based Institute for American Values, which calls itself a "private, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that contributes intellectually to strengthening families and civil society in the U.S. and the world."
Sears said the summit was the first event of its kind sponsored by the Georgia high court.
The costs were borne by private foundations, "with very little state money," she added, although she did not specify how much. Participants paid fees to attend, and the Institute for American Values paid speakers' honoraria and transportation costs.
Sears, with Gov. Sonny Perdue at her side, opened the summit Nov. 19 at the Loudermilk Conference Center in downtown Atlanta.
Sears told the crowd, "If we can't do something about family dysfunction, we can't do much about crime."
Perdue, who backed a challenger against Sears in 2004, said cases involving broken families "clog the courts of our state" and that such meetings "can lead to good policy on how to prevent more wrecks" of families that "affect the core and fabric of our society."
"Children of divorced families are 12 times more likely to wind up in prison," he added.
The summit featured more than a dozen smaller working sessions, touching on topics ranging from "De Facto Parenthood" to origins of the nation's family crisis, to the impact of death on family stability and the value of spirituality in supporting marriages.
The first day's session ended with a sometimes contentious two-hour debate, which organizers called a "conversation," between David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, and Jonathan Rauch, author of "Gay Marriage" and a scholar at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
Each attacked the other's positions, sometimes hotly. Blankenhorn said marriage would be weakened if it is extended to gay people. Rauch said marriage will eventually be seen as "a bigoted institution" unless laws are changed to allow gay marriage.
In the recent elections, voters opposed gay marriage in four state propositions.
"Throwing us under the bus is not the solution," Rauch said, but Blankenhorn said gay marriage would be catastrophic for children "who need a mother and a father at the same time."
Rauch said marriage would stabilize marriage, gay and straight, but Blankenhorn said gay marriage would undermine American culture.
"You guys take marriage for granted," Rauch said to Blankenhorn. "But if you grow up in a world without the possibility of marriage," gay people are hurt because there is no hope of marrying the person you love.
Sears repeatedly interrupted to make sure both men had equal time, but she took no position on the issue.
In the interview, she said that although she had a personal opinion on the issue, it would stay that way because of her post on the state high court. In her 1998 and 2004 re-election bids, opponents painted her as a proponent of gay marriage. In one 2004 response, she said that her position was irrelevant, given the state had laws on the books that recognized only marriages between one man and one woman.
THINKING ABOUT MARRIAGE
Asked about the marriage campaign, Dr. Rick Winer, a Roswell psychiatrist who specializes in family issues but was not at the conference, said billboards alone wouldn't do much good. He compared them to "having signs just telling people to lose weight."
But since the court's billboards list a Web site, www.getmarriedstaymarried.org, "I think they can do some good," Winer added. "The message gets people to start thinking. It can be very useful. And having a Web site definitely helps because it gives people a place to turn to get help."
In last week's interview, Sears, who has two children from her first marriage and is remarried, said the billboard messages may seem simplistic, but she feels they can be effective. Like the conference, she said, the billboards are intended "to raise awareness, and the court is just facilitating this."
Sears said "our crisis with families, divorce and crime" ought to be tackled now because 72 percent of incarcerated juveniles are from "fragmented" families and that 65 percent of Georgia's civil court dockets concern matters pertaining to children and families, outnumbering not only all other civil cases but also all felony and misdemeanor cases combined.
In Georgia, she said about 65 percent of cases heard at trial involve issues concerning families and children, that 60 percent of poor families are led by single mothers and that some 25,000 Georgia youths are admitted a year to detention centers.
She also said that more than a third of children in America are born to unmarried mothers, 10 million households are headed by single mothers, cohabitation has morphed from a fringe phenomenon to a common arrangement, and fatherhood has been marginalized.
Sears advocates subsidizing marriage education programs, referring couples considering divorce to counseling, and perhaps even returning replacing no-fault dissolutions that became widespread in the 1960s and '70s.
"Society's health, and our children's health, is directly related to the health of our families," said Sears, who plans to retire from the court next year.
"Our social science data shows that if marriage can be made more stable, if more fathers would stay involved, the benefits would be enormous for society," she said.
"It's a big problem in my community, the black community," she said. "When I was born in 1955, about 20 percent of black kids were born out of wedlock. It's 70 percent right now, not born with a mother and father living together. In the vast majority of cases, the father is just not around. The expectation needs to be, get married before you have children."
"The main goal of my commission is to get the word out that things can change," she said.
She said marriage "is the best" crime prevention and anti-poverty program, but "we are growing up in a culture where there is no shame or expectation or understanding" of problems of marriage, divorce and fathers who abandon their offspring.
She is not daunted by the challenge of changing the norm, chuckling as she echoed President-elect Barack Obama's campaign, "We can change this, yes we can."
"Believe me, in the '50s, when I grew up, things weren't great for people like me," she said, touching her chest. "The thoughts of being chief justice of the Supreme Court, or of Barack Obama being elected president weren't even thoughts."
Sears added: "It's our job to say to the Legislature, and to the executive, 'we see and notice this,'" she said. "We do more than just read cases. We see a lot of human devastation. It's my job to speak out."
She said that in the 1950s and 1960s, "nearly everybody smoked cigarettes, and no one thought that would change, but it has. We can change the problems hurting our children."