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Why Catholics should beware as high-tech 'deepfake' videos emerge

Dallas, Texas, Apr 25, 2018 / 03:01 am (CNA).- Like any figure of importance, there is high likelihood that the Pope or another Catholic leader could be the subject of a fake video using a rapidly improving technology—and everyone needs to take care not to empower such a hoax, said Rudolph Bush, director of journalism at the University of Dallas.

“It’s very likely to happen, I think, and the consequences could be serious,” Bush told CNA April 23. “Depending on who is targeted by this, depending on how ripe that target is to be manipulated, it could be very damaging.”

For Bush, the prospect is “really worrisome,” given reports that social media have been used to incite societies during elections or times of racial or ethnic tensions. These tensions are manipulated to foment “not only political strife but war and in some cases genocide.”

Bush has worked as a professional journalist since 1997, serving as Dallas and Enterprise editor at the Dallas Morning News. He has written for the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News on politics and crime.

He spoke in response to the development of so-called “deepfake” videos, which are created with artificial intelligence software. One video published by Buzzfeed appeared to feature former U.S. President Barack Obama in a public service announcement about fake news.

“We’re entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time — even if they would never say those things,” Obama’s image said.

“So, for instance, they could have me say things like, I don’t know, ‘Killmonger was right!’” said the digitally modified president, referring to the antagonist in the 2018 hit movie “Black Panther” who aimed to launch a global African uprising.

In the video, Obama appears to insult President Donald Trump and make fun of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, before it is revealed that the president’s image is a digital modification. His lips have been synchronized with those of filmmaker Jordan Peele, who has acted as an Obama impersonator.

“This is a dangerous time. Moving forward, we need to be more vigilant with what we trust from the internet,” Peele’s Obama says.

The footage of President Obama was manipulated and set to a script. Adobe After Effects and a program called FakeApp were used. Rendering of the clip took about 56 hours. Peele, a filmmaker who won an Oscar for the movie “Get Out,” conceived the video with his brother-in-law BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti.

With the prospect of such videos, Bush said, one has to work to “straighten out what is fake news and what is real news.”

“What it does is sow seeds of distrust and worry in societies,” he said. “And of course democracies are based on communal trust, the idea we can get together and solve our problems peacefully.”

The rise of the “deepfake” video also poses the question: will falsehood triumph?

“There used to be an old saying that the truth will win out. That is something that we based our societies on, our journalism on: over time, what is true will carry more weight than what is false,” Bush continued. “That’s being tested now.”

“We live in an age when there is so much false information, at such a volume, that it can be hard to sort out what is true,” he said. “We have a responsibility as consumers to verify what is true, and when we understand what is true, to share it with our fellow parishioners.”

He advised readers to find trusted sources of information within their community, whether in their church community or in the local newspaper, and to rely on those.

“This is a really difficult conversation in our society: whether people will trust the so-called traditional media or mainstream media,” Bush said. “A great deal of effort has been put into sowing distrust in those organizations.”

“Know from where your news comes. That’s very important.”

Both the fundamentals of Catholic teaching and of journalism and communication have shared priorities: “we seek truth, and we also verify truth,” said Bush.

“That has to be a priority when we go and we communicate. It’s a responsibility to communicate truthfully, to make sure the information we’re disseminating is truthful, it’s verified, that it’s critically appraised, before we start disseminating it,” he said.

“Otherwise we just become part of the problem.”

For Bush, it is hard to say whether the new video technology will fundamentally change the media environment or simply continue current trends.

People have become more savvy about relatively new technological hoaxes, such as scam emails promising money from a Nigerian prince, he noted.

“Nobody believes that kind of stuff anymore. So we do adapt,” Bush said. “At the same time, as these things become more sophisticated, particularly if they’re used by state actors or groups with a high level of understanding of what it takes to manipulate a society or a group, then we’ll see whether we can parse what’s real or not real.”
 

New Cardinal Newman Guide helps families navigate college search

Arlington, Va., Apr 25, 2018 / 12:10 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Cardinal Newman Society on Monday released its annual guide to help young Catholics make an informed choice as they navigate their search for colleges.  

The organization noted that this year marks 10 years since Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States. The pope addressed the importance of Catholic education during that trip.

“First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God, Who in Jesus Christ reveals His transforming love and truth,” Pope Benedict XVI told educational leaders at The Catholic University of America on April 17, 2008.

One year later, the Cardinal Newman Society published its first Newman Guide to Catholic Colleges, which the organization’s president, Patrick Reilly, presented to Pope Benedict in Rome.

Every year since, the Cardinal Newman Society has released an annual guide of recommended colleges, chosen based on strong Catholic identity and fidelity.

This year’s guide lists 17 recommended residential Catholic colleges in the U.S.: The Catholic University of America, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Walsh University, University of St. Thomas, Benedictine College, University of Mary, De Sales University, Mount St. Mary’s University, University of Dallas, Belmont Abbey College, Ave Maria University, Christendom College, Thomas Aquinas College, John Paul the Great Catholic University, Wyoming Catholic College, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, and Northeast Catholic College.

It also lists 11 non-residential, international, or online colleges in the country.

Each institution also includes a profile highlighting its unique characteristics, such as educational approach and culture on campus.

The Cardinal Newman Society explained that different types of colleges may fit different students’ personalities, interests and needs, and the guide is intended to help them compare options to find the best fit for their situation.

A copy of the guide is currently available online, and a printed copy will be accessible in the fall.

The organization is also promoting its “Recruit Me” program, where high schools students can be recruited by Catholic colleges, find tips on the college decision process, and take part in the Newman Society’s $5,000 Essay Scholarship Contest.

The society also runs www.CatholicEdJobs.com, a website for Catholic schools to be connected with faithful Catholic job candidates.

Founded in 1993, the Cardinal Newman Society advocates for faithful Catholic education at all levels.

 

Michigan diocese brings in retired judge for investigation, recommits to cooperation

Saginaw, Mich., Apr 24, 2018 / 05:03 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A retired judge who will be overseeing the internal investigation of the sex abuse scandal in the Diocese of Saginaw said he is committed to reporting abuse allegations to the proper authorities.

Earlier this month, Bishop Joseph Cistone of Saginaw announced the appointment of Judge Michael Talbot as an independent delegate appointed to oversee the internal investigation of the diocese, following numerous allegations against priests in the diocese, including one who has been criminally charged.

In March, police raided the home of Bishop Cistone, as well as the chancery and its cathedral rectory, citing a lack of cooperation on the part of the diocese in the ongoing clerical sex abuse investigation.

Talbot said in a statement released by the diocese that he will adhere to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a set of policies and procedures for handling instances of sexual abuse approved by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002.

"As delegate, I intend to comply with the mandatory requirements of The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted by the Catholic bishops of the United States," he said. "As soon as the Diocese of Saginaw receives such a complaint it will be reported to the county prosecutor where the abuse is alleged to have occurred."

Talbot, a Catholic, currently serves in the Archdiocese of Detroit on the Board of Trustees of Sacred Heart Major Seminary and is the Chair of the Board of Madonna University.

He was also a founding chairperson of the Detroit Archdiocesan Review Board in 2002, and assisted in writing the first Victim’s Rights Law for the State of Michigan, which he was responsible for implementing in Wayne County courts.

“On the occasion a person contacts the Diocese Victim Assistance Coordinator to make a complaint of sexual abuse of minors by clergy or other diocesan representative, that person will be told about the diocesan reporting obligation and also will be encouraged to directly report the allegation to civil authorities,” Talbot said in the statement.

“I also intend to seek formal reporting agreements with the 11 County Prosecutors in the Diocese of Saginaw. Beyond the legalities involved, it has been my experience that communication and full cooperation with local law enforcement serves this process well,” he added.

At a press conference following his appointment, Talbot asked that anyone with accusations of sexual abuse against diocesan authorities to come forward.

However, law enforcement involved in the investigation said afterward in a statement that people should report sexual abuse and misconduct directly to police, and not to the diocese.

According to police involved in the investigation, the diocese "cannot and should not be used as a clearing house for the reporting of crimes by victims."

"That is the function of law enforcement. Any victims of abuse or other crimes should report their allegations directly to law enforcement as opposed to the Diocese or Judge Talbot, its independent delegate."

Two priests have been placed on leave from their duties after a recent wave of accusations of sexual abuse against priests in the Saginaw diocese.

In February, Fr. Robert DeLand, pastor of St. Agnes parish in Freeland, was charged with one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, one count of gross indecency between male persons, and one count of attempted second-degree criminal sexual conduct/personal injury, following the accusations of a 21-year-old man and a 17-year-old high school student.

In early April, DeLand was charged with two additional counts of felony sexual misconduct against a minor, as well as one count of possessing a controlled substance and one misdemeanor count of furnishing alcohol for a minor, according to local media.

On March 8, the diocese released a statement clarifying that further review of records determined that the diocese had been informed of rumors about DeLand in 1992, and that in 2005 a woman contacted the diocese about the possibility that DeLand might have sexually abused her brother, who since had died, in the 1970s.

The diocese said it had contracted an investigator to assess the matter, and that “the independent Diocesan Review Board, Bishop Robert Carlson, who was Bishop of Saginaw at the time, as well as the family agreed that the suspicion against Father DeLand was unfounded.”

DeLand, who also served as judicial vicar for the Diocese of Saginaw, has been placed on administrative leave during the investigation. He is also banned from school properties and from presenting himself as a priest.

The second priest to be placed on leave in the recent investigation is Father Ronald J. Dombrowski, following an accusation that he sexually assaulted a minor. According to the diocese, the alleged victim first brought the complaint to the diocese, which contacted the authorities.

While Dombrowski has not been criminally charged, he has also been banned from school properties and from presenting himself as a priest during the investigation.

In 2012, Cistone was accused of misleading a grand jury about his compliance in the destruction of documents containing the names of priests suspected of child molestation in 1994, while he was a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Cistone was not criminally charged in the incident.

New York assisted suicide bill draws fire from disability rights group

New York City, N.Y., Apr 24, 2018 / 03:00 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Disability rights activists are speaking out in opposition to a proposal in New York that would legalize physician assisted suicide.

The Medical Aid in Dying Act, or bill A.2383-A, would amend the current public health law to legalize assisted suicide for mentally competent, terminally ill patients in the state of New York. The bill was heard in the New York Assembly Health Committee on Monday, where a number of opposing groups testified against it.

“The mere suggestion that disability acquired as the result of illness is cause enough to end one’s life is a devaluation of disabled peoples’ lives, and it’s offensive,” said Kathryn Carroll, an attorney and policy analyst with the Center for Disability Rights, who was invited to testify at Monday’s hearing.

“Our focus should be on expanding access to services and supports that allow people to live with dignity, rather than assisting their suicide,” Carroll continued.

She warned of the danger posed by economic incentives for insurance companies and caregivers to push assisted suicide on the terminally ill as the cheaper option, instead of longer term end-of-life care.

“As long as these external influences exist, the promise of a choice to end one’s life is a lie,” Carroll said.

Carroll was joined by other disability advocates, including Mel Tanzman, the executive director of Westchester Disabled on the Move and the chair of the health committee at the New York Association on Independent Living.

Tanzman gave his testimony on Monday on behalf of over 40 organizations who serve individuals with disabilities in the state of New York.

“Fears of becoming disabled and facing functional loss, whether the cause is injury or illness, are often reported by doctors as reasons patients request assisted suicide in states where it is legal,” Tanzman said.

“The disability community strongly opposes the belief that requiring the assistance of another individual for activities of daily living, such as dressing, bathing and toileting, is undignified or a legitimate reason for New York State to legalize physician assisted suicide,” he continued.

Tanzman additionally pointed to the possibility of “coercion and abuse” in such legislation, noting reports that similar assisted suicide measures in other states have experienced “ineffectual safeguards” against abuses for the terminally ill or disabled.

The bill’s New York City hearing is scheduled to take place on May 3, where Not Dead Yet, a disability rights activist group, will be testifying.

The Medical Aid in Dying Act is not the first attempt to legalize physician assisted suicide within New York. Last fall, an appeals court in the state ruled against a lawsuit which stated that citizens have a right to choose doctor-assisted suicide.

The lawsuit claimed that the state’s law against helping another individual commit suicide does not apply to doctor-assisted death, arguing that the ban on physician assisted suicide is unconstitutional because it denies patients the right to self-determination.

However, seven judges of the New York Court of Appeals unanimously shut down the case, saying the current law against assisting with suicide did not make exceptions for doctors. The judges also said the measure would induce undue pressure on terminal patients to end their lives.

Physician assisted suicide is now legal in a handful of states, including California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Incoming pro-life chair to keynote National Catholic Prayer Breakfast

Washington D.C., Apr 23, 2018 / 03:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The keynote speaker at the 2018 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast will be Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, incoming chairman of the US bishops’ pro-life committee.

The breakfast will be held May 24 in Washington, DC.

Naumann became the 11th bishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City on January 15, 2005. He was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Kansas City in 2004.
 
Last November, he was elected chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and will begin a three-year term in that position in November 2018. He is a member of the USCCB Administrative Committee, the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, the USCCB Religious Liberty Committee, the USCCB Communications Committee, and the bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

The archbishop has drawn attention for bold statements on cultural issues. Naumann has spearheaded efforts to restrict abortion in Kansas, and is well-known for challenging Catholic politicians espousing pro-choice positions.

Last year, he cut ties with the Girl Scouts, saying that the organization was “no longer a compatible partner in helping us form young women with the virtues and values of the Gospel.” Parishes were instead encouraged to start troops of American Heritage Girls, an alternative scouting organization.

The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast began in 2004, “in response to St. John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization.” The event is officially nonpartisan and people of all faiths are invited to attend. Past keynote speakers include Cardinal Robert Sarah and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Could a California bill ban Christian teaching on homosexuality?

Sacramento, Calif., Apr 22, 2018 / 04:59 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A proposed law in California could have a chilling effect on free speech, warn critics who fear that it could ban efforts to explain and promote Christian teaching on sexual morality.

“The broad reach of AB 2942 leaves even simple religious speech on same-sex attraction or activities open to legal action and impinges on the basic human right of freedom of religion,” said the California Catholic Conference in a statement.

Assembly Bill 2943, which passed through the California State Assembly on Thursday, would make any transaction relating to practice to change someone’s sexual orientation unlawful. The bill now will go to the California State Senate.

AB 2943 seeks to amend the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CRLA), a law that protects consumers from sellers who are mischaracterizing their product or service.

The bill would ban advertising or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts. It defines such efforts as “any practices that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation. This includes efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.”

The inclusion of “efforts to change behaviors” as a banned activity has led some critics to fear that the bill could be used to prohibit the promotion of Christian sexual morality - through books, counseling, or teaching.

The California Catholic Conference (CCC) has voiced opposition to the bill, and released a letter on its website urging Californians to contact their legislators to prevent it from becoming law.

The conference is concerned that the bill’s definitions are too broad, and seek to prevent adults from making decisions for themselves.

“AB 2943 would take something completely intangible - ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ – and add it to the CRLA,” the conference said.

Further, given that conversion therapy is already illegal for people under the age of 18 in the state, the California Catholic Conference questioned, “why would proponents wish to take away the freedom of adults to seek counselling” for issues regarding sexual orientation or behavior.

These concerns were echoed by Bill May of the Marriage Reality Movement, who told CNA that he feels the bill is “absurd” and inhibits the ability of people spreading “the Gospel’s universal call for repentance and changes in behavior.” May believes that if the bill were to become law, it could result in legal issues for preachers who discuss sexuality.

“Passage would lead to more harassment and possible legal challenges against preaching, literature, conferences and organizations that address sexual morality," said May.

 

Encouragement a strong factor in priesthood discernment, study finds

Washington D.C., Apr 21, 2018 / 04:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A strong majority of the 430 men who are about to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood in the United States come from families where both parents were Catholic, and had several friends encouraging them in their vocation.


The findings were from the annual survey of new ordinands by CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate out of Georgetown University. Out of the 430 men to be ordained to the priesthood, 334 responded to the survey, including 252 ordinands to the diocesan priesthood and 78 ordinands to the religious priesthood.

While this year’s priesthood ordination class is slightly smaller than last year’s class of 590, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said the report provides “reasons for hope and areas for growth.”

"Although the overall number of ordinations to the Priesthood is lower this year, the information gathered from this survey and the generosity of those to be ordained continues to inform the important work of vocations ministry for the future,” Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, Chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, said in a statement.

“It is essential that we continue to make the conscious effort to encourage young men to be open to hearing God's call in their life and assist them in the discernment process."

Encouragement from priests, parishioners and friends was a key factor in considering the priesthood for many of this year’s ordination class.

According to the survey, nearly nine in ten responding ordinands (86 percent) reported being encouraged to consider the priesthood by someone in their life - usually by a parish priest, friend, or another parishioner. On average, respondents said about four different people in their lives encouraged them to consider a vocation to the priesthood.

Father Ralph O'Donnell, Executive Director of the Secretariat for the USCCB, said that this was “one of the most encouraging statistics” from the report and that it should be a call to all the faithful to encourage vocations.

“This fact should enliven in the faithful a resolve to actively encourage the young people that they encounter to consider to what vocation God is calling them and to be generous in their response," he said in a statement.

The survey also found that most of the men being ordained this year were baptized Catholic as infants (90 percent) and that most also grew up in families where both parents were Catholic (83 percent). Slightly more than one-third of the respondents are also related to priests, the survey found.

This year’s class also included slightly more respondents who were born in the United States. In previous years, the average amount of foreign-born ordinands was around 30 percent, while only 25 percent of the 2018 ordination class is foreign-born. Of that 25 percent, the majority come from Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Colombia.

Many of the ordinands also had prior undergraduate school or work experiences before entering the seminary. The survey found that nearly half of all of this year’s class had completed an undergraduate degree before entering the seminary, with the most common areas of study being social science, theology, philosophy, business, or liberal arts. Two-thirds of the men also reported previous full-time work experience before entering the seminary.

Also included in the report were the ordinands’ answers to the prompt - “People might be surprised to know…”

Edgar Elamparo, of the Diocese of San Jose, responded with a story about going off to seminary.

“Before my family sent me off to the seminary, I saw my uncle in front of our house with tears in his eyes. I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ He replied, ‘When you were young, I asked you what would you want to become when you grow up? and you said, I want to become a priest, and now here, you are on your way to your dream.’”

Brett Garland of the Diocese of Columbus said he “preached at my twin brother's wedding just two months after I was ordained a deacon, and I will be the celebrant of my older brother's wedding this summer, just a month after I am ordained a priest.  By living out their particular vocations, both of my brothers have encouraged me in my own vocation.”

This year’s survey was conducted between Jan. 29 - March 11 via email. The findings of the annual CARA survey are sent to the USCCB’s Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

Chicago church leaders unite to oppose massive tax threat to religious groups

Chicago, Ill., Apr 21, 2018 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Religious leaders in Chicago are fighting to end a lawsuit filed by an atheist group that would impose upwards of $1 billion in taxes for churches around the nation.

The lawsuit, Gaylor v. Mnuchin, was filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The case aims to end the parsonage allowance, a federal tax provision used by religious establishments such as churches, mosques, and synagogues, which offers a housing allowance to help religious leaders live in the communities they serve.

Chris Butler, pastor of the south-side Chicago Embassy Church requested April 19 that a federal appeals court throw out the lawsuit on discriminatory grounds. Butler is joined by other ecclesial communities and Churches, including leaders from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia's Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America and Holy Cross Anglican Church.

“For the majority of churches, the pastors are like me and experience at some level the same problems that we’re trying to face in the community,” said Butler, according to a recent statement from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“If you take away even a little bit, it can become a lot of trouble quickly.”

Butler serves a predominately African-American community where he ministers to at-risk youth and the homeless in his neighborhood. He also is involved with programs to decrease local crime.

According to the Becket Fund, which has been involved in the case since January 2017, ending the parsonage allowance would “discriminate against religious groups by treating them worse than many other secular employees who receive similar tax treatment,” and would also “harm poor communities by diverting scarce resources away from essential ministries.”

Ed Peecher, bishop of the Chicago Embassy Church, said a video released by Becket that “If I am here to pastor this community, if I am here to make an impact on this community, it has to be done in the context of a relationship and it’s hard to have a relationship over distance… there is no substitute for proximity. You have to be there.”

The parsonage allowance, which was enacted by Congress 64 years ago, allows tax exemptions for religious leaders similar to exceptions in place for teachers, business leaders, and military service members, among others.

For the past century, both Congress and the IRS have recognized the convenience-of-the-employer doctrine, which upholds that employees may exclude housing benefits from their income if the benefits contribute to the convenience of the employer. This doctrine has been applied to religious and non-religious groups alike, according to Becket’s opening brief at the federal appeals court April 19.

The Becket Fund believes that if the parsonage allowance is ended, then the IRS would be discriminating particularly against religious leaders, since other secular workers receive a similar exemption.

“The same group of atheists claimed it was unconstitutional to put Mother Teresa on a postage stamp, so it’s no surprise they’re trying to sic the IRS on churches,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel at Becket.

“Treating ministers like other professionals isn’t an establishment of religion; it’s fair tax treatment.”

Spiritual guidance belongs in politics, Bishop Tobin says

Providence, R.I., Apr 20, 2018 / 01:55 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Speaking out on political issues is not only a right, but a duty, for religious leaders, said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence in a recent interview.

“What we try and do is take the Gospel, the basis of our faith, and apply it to the issues of the day,” Bishop Tobin told the Providence Journal in an article published April 17.

“Now, some people will like it, some people won’t like it; some will agree, some will not. I think we have not just a right but the need to be involved in these public conversations.”

Bishop Tobin said that when he speaks about issues such as immigration and gun control, he draws criticism from conservatives, who say, “Stay out of it, it’s not your business.” When speaking about abortion or same-sex marriage, he said, he gets the same response from liberals.

“So sometimes I’m accused of being too conservative, and sometimes I’m accused of being a raging liberal.”

However, he said, it is important to preach the Gospel no matter how people respond.

One tool the bishop has been using to weigh in on political and moral debates is Twitter. In February, the prelate opened an account, @bishoptjt, which now has over 1,300 followers.

Because he alone controls the subject of his tweets, he said “there’s no filter there,” unlike his Facebook account which is managed by someone in his office.

“I thought, if the president can do it and the pope can do it, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be doing it,” he said.

Bishops Tobin uses his Twitter account to discuss both serious topics – such as liturgy and politics – and lighthearted, personal interests.

“I’ve done some devotional things, some spiritual things, and some liturgical things and some prayerful things,” the bishop said. “I’ve also put some things up about the Steelers and about my dog and about some political things and about the weather and April Fools Day.”

 

How a new Utah law is promoting marriage prep classes

Salt Lake City, Utah, Apr 20, 2018 / 12:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Utah is encouraging its citizens to better prepare for marriage by discounting the cost of marriage licenses for couples who complete marriage preparation classes.  

The law, signed March 20 by Utah Governor Gary Herbert, will discount marriage licenses by $20 for couples who complete at least three hours of premarital counseling or six hours of premarital classes at least 14 days before applying for a marriage license. These services may be provided by either religious or secular organizations.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Allen Christensen, said it is an effort to counter the high divorce rate.

“Typically, in Utah, we have 25,000 marriages a year. About 10,000 of those are going to end up in divorce,” he said, according to the Brigham Young University student publication.

The co-chair of the Utah Marriage Commission, Alan Hawkins, said the premarital services ought to address marital commitment, the factors within successful marriages, and communication skills.

In a blog post on the Institute for Family Studies, Hawkins emphasized the importance that these premarital services have on lasting marriages.

“A substantial body of research has shown that premarital education can help newlywed couples get off to a stronger start and reduce the risk of divorce in the early, high-risk years of marriage,” he said.

Hawkins said the Utah Marriage Commission is partnering with the state to help spread the word, and encouraged wedding retailers to show support for the bill by matching the $20 discount.

The Commission will initiate a study to determine the success of the project over the next five years, when the law will be up for renewal. Hawkins said the goal of the law is to increase participation in premarital services from its current 30 percent of marrying couples to 50 percent.

Nine other states have created similar laws to promote marital counseling. While the discount is small, Hawkins said, “anecdotal data from other states that have adopted a similar marriage-license-discount policy suggests that lower-income couples are especially responsive to these discounts.”

“Ultimately, however, the discount is less a financial incentive and more a cultural nudge for couples to take seriously the need for marriage preparation.”