Tennessee county enacts law requiring four hours of pre-marital counseling, at a cost of $60, before a license can be issued. Surprised officials then complain about precipitous drop in marriages.

The marriage business is way down at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Rev. Mark Sanderlinds, who in times past would hang around the courthouse waiting for weddings to conduct, said, "We used to get eight or nine a day. Now it may be five a week."

County Clerk Bill Knowles said, "Our marriage license business has gone down drastically."

The office handed out a record 5,175 marriage licenses in 1997.

It was down to 2,587 last year.

Rev. Sanderlinds said a big factor is the introduction in 2003 of a Tennessee requirement that couples undergo four hours of marital preparation. They can avert the requirement by paying a $60 fee. That makes the total cost $97.50.

The minister said couples can go to Georgia and avoid the $60 charge, and he said many are doing so. He said, "In Georgia, everything is easier. At Ringgold, there is a wedding chapel right across from the courthouse."

One of the ministers there is Rev. Tommy Davis, who at one time was a regular at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Rev. Sanderlinds said, "If they are losing all this business and revenue, they should rethink their policy and make adjustments."

Julie Baumgardner, executive director of First Things First, which provides some of the marriage counseling to couples, said there are other factors in the drop of county marriages.

She said Georgia no longer requires a blood test.

Also, she said many couples now live together instead of officially tying the knot.

Ms. Baumgardner said the instruction is very helpful to many young couples. She said when they get the advice on such matters as listening skills and handling finances, "there is a significantly greater chance of being successful in their marriage."

Divorce numbers are on a slight decline in Hamilton County Circuit Court.

They went from 1,787 in 2000-2001 to 1,756 the following year, 1,620 in 2002-2003 and 1,657 in 2003-2004. They were at 1,511 in 2004-2005 and at 1,606 in 2005-2006.

Mr. Knowles said his office had to find new revenue avenues, including getting funds from handling state driver’s licenses.

He said he believes the counseling does have merit, especially for younger couples.

Mr. Knowles said, "The biggest complaints we get are from older people who may have been married 40 or 50 years, lost their spouse, and are getting married again."