ELKTON -- The former Vegas of the East Coast is getting marriage counseling.
In a town once known for its quickie weddings, religious leaders are now worried about too many divorces.
So representatives from 19 local churches gathered yesterday in front of the Cecil County courthouse - just across the street from the only remaining wedding chapel among a dozen that once dotted this town - and signed a pact to help strengthen marriages.
These days in Elkton, according to those who joined in yesterday's event, people are getting hitched and ditched. At least that's their perception, even if the numbers aren't quite so definitive.
Cecil County had 300 divorces in 2005, says Nicholas Ricciuti, director of the county's Department of Social Services. That is a slightly disproportionate share of Maryland's 17,000 divorces that year - 2.1 percent, while the county makes up 1.7 percent of the state's population.
Couples enter the left side of the courthouse to get married, and about half of them return to the right side to get divorced, says Mike McManus, who works with his wife, Harriet, to run the nonprofit organization Marriage Savers out of Potomac.
"We want to increase the business over here and cut it over there," he said, pointing to the two sides of the courthouse.
Yesterday's signatures brought the number of participating churches in Cecil to two dozen. By joining the pact, clergy agreed to require that engaged couples complete months of preparatory sessions with trained mentors. They also promised to encourage married couples to attend relationship-strengthening retreats and seminars, and to come back for mentoring when the going gets tough.
The agreement, called a Community Marriage Policy, was written by McManus and his wife. The Potomac couple's organization has helped create similar policies for 219 other counties - including Carroll and Frederick - and urban areas.
Cecil is getting federal help, too - a $500,000 annual Healthy Marriage Initiative grant, to train the marriage mentors and fund relationship seminars in schools and community organizations, Ricciuti said. The grant has also funded a billboard design contest most recently won by a 9-year-old girl.
Such concerns about failing marriages are a far cry from Elkton's long history in the wedding business (Unofficial motto: "Wedding capital of the East").
Before Maryland imposed a two-day waiting period for all marriage applicants in 1939, the town was a wedding hot spot. Its location in the northeastern corner of the state made it easy for couples from Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to hop the border and tie the knot in a day.
The onset of World War II only increased business, as soldiers raced to get married against the clock of deployment, says the Rev. Frank Smith, who runs the Little Wedding Chapel, the only speed-marriage spot still in town. Willie Mays and Billie Holiday were married there, and the chapel says Babe Ruth was, too.
The Little Wedding Chapel now abides by the state law, although it was not widely enforced until after the war, Smith says. In the 1960s, he was still marrying 2,000 couples a year. Now he marries a tenth of that. "We still get them from all over the world," Smith said. "Some from Europe, even."
Ricciuti's figures show that these days, 1,000 couples come from out of state each year to get married in Cecil County.
"Elkton still has a bit of a reputation," Ricciuti said - but that doesn't necessarily contribute to the county's divorces.
"Most of those people don't live in Cecil County," he said. "They don't stay here."
Smith did not sign the marriage pact, because he is not licensed for marriage counseling.
The signing was organized largely by the Rev. Alan Bosmeny, the lead pastor at First Assembly of God in Elkton. He says he has a personal stake in it.
In 1974, Bosmeny's marriage was falling apart. Three years after his marriage at age 22 to a bride of 18, he and his wife, Donna, were suffering a complete breakdown in communication.
He still remembers the night when their marriage was saved - Jan. 2, 1975. The couple had separated, and Donna had come to their Georgia home to pick up her things for a move to Florida the next day. A mutual friend invited them to the Bible study she was attending that night so Donna could say goodbye.
That night, they accepted Christ in their hearts, Bosmeny said. The drugs and pornography went out the window, and the couple began to pray together. "I will go to my grave saying this: that God instantaneously healed and put our marriage back together," he said.
In Frederick County, a similar marriage policy was signed by 28 pastors in 2005, when the county divorce rate was 51 percent, according to Bob Donk of Walkersville, who directs Marriage Savers of Frederick County after serving as pastor of Calvary Assembly of God in Frederick.
Now, 55 county couples are marriage mentors, and the organization is embarking on an effort with Head Start to reach out to single parents.
Donk doesn't have statistics, but he has heard positive things about the program. "We know it's working," he said. "It's changing relationships and making stronger marriages."
Bill McKenna of Westminster, who runs the Marriage Resource Center of Carroll County with his wife, Anne, reports similar results since 22 churches signed the county policy in 2004. "Among churches that have done this, I don't think there's 10 divorces," McKenna said.
When Mike McManus first outlined his marriage rescue strategies in his syndicated column "Ethics & Religion," he was invited by pastors to speak all over the country - speeches that had "no effect whatsoever," he said.
But after his 1993 book Marriage Savers attracted national attention, his ideas gained momentum, and four years later he started the organization that would eventually bring clerical marriage pacts to areas as large as Louisville, Ky.; Austin, Texas; and Minnesota's Twin Cities.
The McManuses have been training marriage mentors at their church, Fourth Presbyterian in Bethesda, since 1992. By 2000, more than 200 mentored couples had married, with a 97 percent success rate so far.
With yesterday's policy signing, the Cecil County clergy hope to replicate that reported success, says Stephen Hokus, pastor of First Baptist Church of North East: "It makes a good marriage when you start off on the right foot and build a strong foundation."