Tag Archives: divorce

Divorce equality: Gay couples fight for right to separate in some states

Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham wants to force Mississippi, one of the America’s most conservative states, to recognize her same-sex marriage. She hopes to do so by getting a divorce.

She and Dana Ann Melancon traveled from Mississippi to San Francisco to get married in 2008. The wedding was all Czekala-Chatham hoped it would be, the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, dreams for a promising future. She wrote the vows herself.

The couple bought a house together in Walls, a town of about 1,100 in northern Mississippi’s DeSoto County in June 2009. But the marriage was tumultuous and, like so many others, it didn’t last.

Czekala-Chatham, a 51-year-old credit analyst and mother of two teenage sons, filed for divorce in chancery court in September. She wants to force Mississippi to recognize the same-sex marriage for the purpose of granting the divorce.

“It’s humiliating to know that you spend that money, that time to be in a committed relationship and for it to end. I mean, that hurts. But then to be in a state that doesn’t recognize you as a human being, or recognize you for who you are, for who you love, it’s hard,” Czekala-Chatham said during an interview at her current home in Hernando. “I’m not treated like the neighbors next door. I’m treated like a second-class citizen.”

She has plenty of company among gay and lesbian couples in other conservative states.

Even as the number of states legalizing same-sex marriage will soon grow to 16, most states – like Mississippi – refuse to recognize such unions or to help dissolve them. Gay couples who move to those states after marrying elsewhere face roadblocks if they wish to divorce, as do couples from those states who make a brief foray out-of-state to get married.

Often, such couples in non-recognition states would have to move back to the state where they were married and establish residency in order to get divorced – an option that can be unworkable in many cases.

“The idea you can’t go to your local courthouse and file for divorce is very disruptive,” said Peter Zupcofska, a Boston lawyer who has represented many gay and lesbian clients in marriage and divorce cases. “It’s an enormous waste of effort and time.”

The right to divorce isn’t as upbeat a topic as the right to marry, but gay-rights lawyers and activists say it’s equally important.

“The marriage system is a way we recognize and protect the commitments people make to their partner,” said James Esseks, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Part of that system is creating a predictable, regularized way of dealing with the reality that relationships sometimes end,” he said. “Those are the times people are the worst to each other, and that’s why we have divorce courts. There’s got to be an adult in the room.”

On a recent evening, in the one-story brick house she shares with her two children, a new girlfriend and several pets, Czekala-Chatham sat on the edge of a leather recliner, shaking her head.

“Why should I be treated differently, you know?” she said. “When the courthouse is a few blocks from here, I should be able to walk up there and get married. I should also be able to go up there and get divorced.”

She could get a divorce in California, but her lawyer argues that Mississippi wouldn’t recognize the divorce and their marital property would remain “in limbo.”

Melancon’s lawyer, Chad Reeves, filed a motion to dismiss the divorce complaint based on the argument that Mississippi can’t grant a divorce for a marriage that it doesn’t recognize. However, Reeves told The Associated Press on Friday that the motion was withdrawn after the parties signed an agreement related to division of property and debts.

Reeves said he opposed the divorce because Czekala-Chatham asked for alimony, among other things, but those matters have been settled. He said Melancon will get the house, and won’t have to pay alimony. Czekala-Chatham says she doesn’t care, she just wants the divorce.

A hearing was scheduled for Dec. 2.

Melancon, who now lives in Arkansas, declined to be interviewed. She said in an email that she wants the divorce, but the “avenues to pursue are vague and expensive.” She did not elaborate.

The Mississippi Attorney General’s office filed a motion to intervene on Nov. 15 that said the divorce petition should be dismissed.

Mississippi “has no obligation to give effect to California laws that are contrary to Mississippi’s expressly stated public policy,” the motion argues. “That legitimate policy choice precludes recognition of other States’ same sex marriages for any reason, including granting a divorce.”

Legal experts say getting Mississippi to recognize the marriage for any purpose is a longshot. Lawmakers amended state law in 1997 to say any same-sex marriage “is prohibited and null and void from the beginning. Any marriage between persons of the same gender that is valid in another jurisdiction does not constitute a legal or valid marriage in Mississippi.”

In 2004, 86 percent of Mississippi voters approved an amendment placing a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution.

In his arguments for a divorce, Czekala-Chatham’s lawyer, Wesley Hisaw, cites a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and ordered the U.S. government to recognize legal same-sex marriages. That has created a situation where same-sex couples “are married lawfully under the laws of the United States, but not under Mississippi law,” Hisaw contends.

He also argues that bigamous and incestuous marriages are considered “void” in Mississippi, just like same-sex marriages, but bigamy and incest are also grounds for divorce.

“There can be no legitimate state purpose in allowing bigamous or incestuous couples to divorce and not allowing the same remedy to same-sex couples,” he wrote.

Right-to-divorce cases have cropped up in some other states with constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. On Nov. 5, the Texas Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the state can grant divorces to gay couples married elsewhere.

The plaintiffs are couples from Austin and Dallas who married in Massachusetts and later filed for divorce in Texas. The Austin couple was granted a divorce, but Attorney General Greg Abbott intervened in the Dallas case and won an appeals court decision blocking a divorce.

In the oral arguments, Assistant Attorney General James Blacklock argued there’s no way for Texas to grant a divorce because of the constitutional ban.

“There’s no marriage here,” he said. “So there can be no divorce.”

A similar case has just commenced in Kentucky, where two women married in Massachusetts are seeking a divorce.

At least one same-sex couple has been able to get a divorce in a state that doesn’t officially recognize same-sex unions. In 2011, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that two women married in Canada could get a divorce in the state, reversing a ruling by a district judge.

While the issue of same-sex divorce has drawn increasing attention, there is little in the way of comprehensive data to help draw comparisons between the divorce rates of gay couples and heterosexual couples.

One of the few large-scale studies addressing the question was conducted by Michael Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Stanford University. He assessed the breakup rates among about 3,000 couples since 2009, and concluded there was little difference between gay couples and straight couples.

Depending on a couple’s circumstances, a host of weighty matters can be affected by the inability to divorce – division of property, child custody, health coverage for a spouse, the ability to get remarried. In some cases, the inability to divorce could mean that an estranged spouse would continue to receive spousal benefits even though the other partner wanted those benefits halted so he or she could move on to a new relationship.

“It’s really problematic for people in getting on with their lives, being considered single again,” said Kenneth Upton Jr., an attorney in the Dallas office of Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights group.

Vatican asking parishes about gay marriage, birth control, divorce

The Vatican is taking the unusual step of conducting a worldwide survey on how parishes deal with issues such as birth control, divorce and gay marriage, seeking input ahead of a major meeting on the family that Pope Francis plans next year.

The poll was sent in mid-October to every national conference of bishops with a request from the Vatican coordinator, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, to “share it immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received.”

The survey reflects the pope’s pledges to move away from what he called a “Vatican-centric” approach toward one where local church leaders are more involved in decision-making.

Among the questions are whether gay marriage is recognized in their jurisdictions and how priests minister to same-sex couples, including how churches can respond when gays seek a religious education or Holy Communion for their children.

The poll also asks “how is God’s mercy proclaimed” to separated, divorced and remarried couples. Additional information is sought on the pastoral care of men and women who live together outside of marriage.

The survey also asks parishes whether they believe married men and women tend to follow church teaching barring the use of artificial contraception.

The National Catholic Reporter, an independent news organization, was first to report that the survey will be conducted, and it posted a copy online.

Helen Osman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, confirmed plans for the poll to The Associated Press.

“It will be up to each bishop to determine what would be the most useful way of gathering information to provide to Rome,” Osman wrote in an email. In England, bishops have posted the survey online to be filled out by a wide range of Catholics, including priests, lay people, parents and nuns.

The poll findings will help set the agenda for an extraordinary synod, or meeting, of the presidents of national bishops conferences in October 2014.

The introduction to the survey lays out a broad list of concerns which the document says “were unheard of until a few years ago,” including single-parent families, polygamy, interfaith marriages and “forms of feminism hostile to the church.” Surrogate motherhood is lamented in the document as “wombs for hire,” and the survey cites as a new challenge “same-sex unions between persons who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children.”

Francis has said the church needs to do a better job preparing young people for marriage, lamenting that newlyweds seem to think marriage isn’t a lifelong commitment but just a “provisional” one. At the same time, he has said the church process for annulling marriages isn’t working and must be reviewed.

Francis’ emphasis on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy and boosting the participation of local church leaders and lay people has prompted speculation about how far-reaching his changes could be.

The pope has urged pastors to focus on being merciful and welcoming rather than emphasizing only such divisive issues as abortion, gay marriage and contraception. At the same time, he has made clear his support for traditional marriage and opposition to abortion.

The introduction to the new survey extensively quotes former popes and the Catholic catechism on marriage being the union of a man and a woman for the purposes of having children.

Texas judge says lesbian couple can’t live together

A judge has ruled that a North Texas lesbian couple can’t live together because of a morality clause in one of the women’s divorce papers.

The clause is common in divorce cases in Texas and other states. It prevents a divorced parent from having a romantic partner spend the night while children are in the home. If the couple marries, they can get out from under the legal provision – but that is not an option for gay couples in Texas, where such marriages aren’t recognized.

The Dallas Morning News reported that in a divorce hearing last month for Carolyn and Joshua Compton, Collin County District Judge John Roach Jr. enforced the terms detailed in their 2011 divorce papers. He ordered Carolyn Compton’s partner, Page Price, to move out of the home they shared with the Comptons’ two daughters, ages 10 and 13. The judge gave Price 30 days to find another place to live.

Paul Key said his client, Joshua Compton, wanted the clause enforced for his kids’ benefit.

“The fact that they can’t get married in Texas is a legislative issue,” Key said. “It’s not really our issue.”

The Comptons had been married for 11 years before their split. Carolyn Compton originally filed for divorce in September 2010.

Roach said the clause doesn’t target same-sex couples, adding that the language is gender neutral.

“It’s a general provision for the benefit of the children,” the judge said.

Price and Carolyn Compton said in a statement that they believe the clause is unconstitutional. But they also said they would comply with the order “even though it will be disruptive to their family and has the potential of being harmful to the children.”

They also said in the statement that the clause “is a burden on parents, regardless of their sexual orientation, that takes away and unreasonably limits their ability to make parental decisions of whom their children may be around and unreasonably limits what the United State Supreme Court has identified as the liberty of thought, belief and expression.”

They are considering whether to file an appeal.

In Collin County, the clause is part of the standing orders that apply to every divorce case filed and remains in force while the divorce is pending. In the case of the Comptons’ divorce, the clause was also added to their final divorce decree. It has no expiration date.

Iowa clerk guilty of falsifying papers for gay couple’s marriage license

A former rural Iowa court official pleaded guilty on May 6 to forgery for filing false documents to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple from central Florida, in the first case of its kind in Iowa.

Former Grundy County deputy clerk Brigitte Van Nice, 42, received a fine and a suspended sentence after entering the guilty pleas to perjury and forgery charges at the courthouse in Grundy Center, where she used to work.

The resolution drew criticism from Joab Penney of Williston, Fla., who says Van Nice’s actions duped him out of $150 and gave him an unending legal headache. Penney said he was outraged when court officials advised him May 6 he should hire an attorney to petition to void his marriage license – which he said should have never been issued in the first place.

“They found her guilty, but what I wanted – to have my marriage voided – didn’t happen,” he told The Associated Press. “Now I’m going to have to pay for voiding something that never even happened.”

Referring to the sentence issued by Judge Bradley Harris, he said: “That’s really light. That’s a legal document. If that was me or you, we would be going to prison, wouldn’t we?”

Van Nice was arrested and suspended from her job in October after investigators discovered that she issued a license last year to Penney and his then-boyfriend Joseph Parker, who had never set foot in Iowa. She was later fired for violating judicial branch policies, court administrator Linda Nilges said.

Penney and Parker contacted Van Nice’s office randomly when inquiring about how to get a license, which they could not get in Florida, where same-sex marriage is outlawed. Iowa allows same-sex marriage for couples who come to the state for a ceremony witnessed by two people.

Prosecutors say Van Nice issued them a license after she filed documents falsely claiming she had officiated a Valentine’s Day wedding for the couple and faked two witness signatures. Van Nice falsely told colleagues that she had met the men at a Waterloo truck stop, where they asked her to officiate and had lined up the witnesses.

The Florida men discovered the fraud months later, when Penney contacted an attorney to seek a divorce. The attorney was suspicious because the men had never been to Iowa and Van Nice mailed the application materials from her home, not the courthouse. The attorney contacted authorities asking for an investigation.

Penney said he now wants to marry a woman in Florida, but officials there say that he’s legally married to Parker and needs to obtain a divorce first.

“My marriage never happened. It should be voided. Period. Done. Never happened,” he said. “The lady told me a bunch of crap and got money out of me.”

County Recorder Charles Kruse said Monday he had no idea whether Penney’s marriage remained valid, but that he advised him to “contact an attorney and petition the court.”

Harris found Van Nice guilty of one count of aggravated misdemeanor forgery, and issued a deferred judgment on two other counts of forgery and perjury, meaning they will be wiped off her record if she stays out of trouble.

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation has said that Van Nice’s arrest was the first of its kind in Iowa, which was the first Midwestern state to allow same-sex marriage in 2009. National experts on gay rights also said the case appeared to be unique.

Penney said he has been frustrated by the lack of answers from officials in Iowa and the legal limbo he’s in.

“I want to get married here to a woman, and I can’t,” he said. “It’s a major headache. I’ve changed my lifestyle because of all of this. It has offended me that much.”

Judge refuses divorce for transgender man who gave birth to three children

A judge on Friday refused to grant a divorce for a transgender man who gave birth to three children after beginning to change his sex from female.

Maricopa County Family Court Judge Douglas Gerlach ruled that Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriages prevents Thomas Beatie’s 9-year union from being recognized as valid.

Thomas Beatie was born a woman and later underwent a double-mastectomy, and began testosterone hormone therapy and psychological treatment to become a man, but he retained female reproductive organs and gave birth to three children.

Gerlach said he had no jurisdiction to approve a divorce because there’s insufficient evidence that Beatie was a man when he married Nancy Beatie in Hawaii. He said the Beaties never provided records to fully explain what Thomas Beatie actually had done and not done to become a man.

“The decision here is not based on the conclusion that this case involves a same-sex marriage merely because one of the parties is a transsexual male, but instead, the decision is compelled by the fact that the parties failed to prove that (Thomas Beatie) was a transsexual male when they were issued their marriage license,” he wrote in Friday’s ruling.

A spokesman for Beatie, Ryan Gordon, said the judge’s comments came as a shock and that Beatie plans to appeal the ruling. He said Beatie legally was married as a man and never was required to disclose that he retained female reproductive organs when applying for and being granted a new birth certificate in Hawaii as a man. He said Beatie halted testosterone treatments so that he could give birth to his children.

“It’s unfortunate that the judge out here doesn’t recognize marriage in another state,” Gordon said.

Beatie is eager to end his marriage, but the couple’s divorce plans stalled last summer when Gerlach said he was unable to find legal authority defining a man as someone who can give birth.

Gerlach’s ruling didn’t address whether Arizona law allows a person who was born female to marry another female after undergoing a sex change operation.

A separate ruling issued Friday by Gerlach sets guidelines on how the Beaties will co-parent their three children and grants them joint authority in making legal decisions. Thomas Beatie is required to pay nearly $240 a month to Nancy Beatie for child support, but she won’t get alimony because the marriage was declared invalid.

Nancy Beatie’s attorney, David Higgins, praised Gerlach for the thoroughness of the decision on the marriage, although it wasn’t the one she had hoped for.

“He still sees a same-sex marriage, but he gave us all the rulings that we’re asking for as far as the children,” Higgins said.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights, which isn’t involved in the Beatie divorce case, has said courts have declared marriages involving a transgender person invalid in a handful of cases across the country, but that those cases had different factual and legal issues than those in the Beatie case.

Maryland lawmaker says divorce, gay marriage vote drove him to drink

A Maryland lawmaker charged with operating a boat under the influence of alcohol says he began drinking more after separating from his wife and feeling “betrayed” by longtime colleagues who voted for gay marriage.

Delegate Don Dwyer, a Republican from Anne Arundel, told The Capital of Annapolis (http://bit.ly/VAeo0Q) that his drinking increased toward the end of last year’s General Assembly session.

Dwyer said he felt sold out when colleagues voted last year for same-sex marriage, an issue he spent years working against. Voters affirmed gay marriage in the state in November, leading to the first same-sex weddings in the state on Jan. 1.

Dwyer also separated from his wife in November 2011.

He has acknowledged that he was under the influence of alcohol when his boat collided with another vessel on the Magothy River in August. Several people were injured.

He says he has gotten treatment and no longer drinks. 

Uruguay’s lower house approves gay marriage law

Lawmakers in taboo-breaking Uruguay have voted to legalize gay marriage, approving a single law governing marriage for heterosexuals and gays.

The proposal now goes to the Senate, where the ruling coalition has enough votes for passage. President Jose Mujica plans to sign it into law early next year.

The proposal, which passed the lower house of Congress by a wide margin, would also let all couples, gay or straight, decide whose surname goes first when they name their children.

That breaks with a tradition that has held for centuries across Latin America, where in nearly every country, laws require people to give their children two last names, and the father’s comes first.

“It’s an issue that will generate confusion in a society that has forever taken the father’s name. But these changes in society have to be accepted,” said Deputy Anibal Gloodtdofsky of the right-wing Colorado Party, who told The Associated Press he planed to join the ruling Broad Front coalition and vote in favor.

The “Marriage Equality Law” also would replace Uruguay’s 1912 divorce law, which gave only women, and not their husbands, the right to renounce marriage vows without cause. In the early 20th Century, Uruguay’s lawmakers saw this as an equalizer, since men at the time held all the economic and social power in a marriage, historian Gerardo Caetano said.

“A hundred years later, with all the changes that have occurred in Uruguayan society, this argument has fallen of its own accord,” Caetano said. “It’s absolutely logical now that divorces can happen if either party wants it. And I really think it won’t have much of an impact.”

The projected law’s co-sponsor, Broad Front deputy Anibal Pereyra, said Uruguay’s civil code needs to be updated so that all the rights and responsibilities apply to anyone who wants to marry, straight or gay.

Uruguay became the first Latin American country to legalize abortion this year, and its Congress is debating a plan to put the government in charge of marijuana sales as a way to attack illegal marijuana traffickers.

The new proposal would make Uruguay the second nation in Latin America and the 12th in the world to legalize gay marriage, after The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina and Denmark.

The bill also would clarify rules for adoption and in-vitro fertilization, and eliminate the words “marido y mujer” (husband and woman) in marriage contracts, refering instead to the gender neutral “contrayentes” (contracting parties).

The Roman Catholic Church is opposed to the proposal, but the church has little political influence in secular Uruguay.

Judging from the congressional debate so far, giving gays and lesbians all the same rights and responsibilities of married straight couples seems to have been the easy part for most lawmakers. The naming change seemed to cause the most controversy as the measure came through legislative committees.

In the end, the legislators proposed to let all couples choose which surname comes first for their children. And if they can’t decide, the proposed law says a “sorteo,” such as the flip of a coin, in the civil registry office should decide the issue.

The law also sets out naming rules for adoptees and people born outside marriage. A child registered by a single parent would take that parent’s name as a first surname. And one whose parents are unknown altogether would be given “two commonly used names” selected by the civil registry office.

In the United States and many other countries, couples are free to decide what surnames to give their children. Even in many Latin American nations, some people already shun convention and use a mother’s name if family circumstances make use of the paternal name inconvenient or impossible.

Uruguay’s neighbor Argentina has been more rigid: When it became the first Latin American country to legalize gay marriage in 2010, its lawmakers said last names would go in alphabetical order for the children of same-sex couples, and they left the naming traditions of heterosexuals unchanged. 

While Uruguayans seem broadly in favor of legalizing gay marriage, the naming issue has led to some confusion.

“I really can’t understand the point of letting heterosexual couples choose the order of their surnames. In reality, I think it’s for political correctness, and the price is to lose information: Today when someone is presented, we know clearly who the father is and who the mother is. Not so in the future,” said office worker Daniel Alvarez.

Gloodtdofsky acknowledged that non-gays may not have realized yet why these changes are necessary, “but the reality is that gays have been living as couples for years, generating rights. These rights must be recognized and attention must be paid to this new version of marriage.”

Uruguay has had a civil unions law that covers gay couples, and Bishop Jaime Fuentes of the Roman Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference of Uruguay said “It seems logical that two people of the same sex who care for each other and want to share their lives can have some kind of civil recognition, but it can’t be the same as what governs marriage.”

But Federico Grana of the Black Sheep Collective, a gay rights group that presented a first draft of the bill, said “society is much broader than just heterosexuals, so the law should reflect this, with everyone included, and no discrimination.”

Washington drafting same-sex marriage certificates

The Washington state Health Department will be changing marriage and divorce certificates in response to the same-sex marriage law that takes effect Dec. 6.

Words such as “bride,” “groom,” “husband” and “wife” will likely be gone. The department wants to use gender-neutral terms.

Spokesman Tim Church told KIRO-FM (http://is.gd/qO94io ) they could be replaced with something like “Spouse A” and “Spouse B.”

The forms will still include gender so the state can track the number of same-sex couples in the state.

The department is asking the public for suggestions. A public hearing on wording marriage certificates was held on Nov. 28 in Tumwater.

Ex-wife sues man for breaking up her marriage to Miss. mayor

The former wife of Southaven Mayor Greg Davis is seeking $1 million in a lawsuit against a 26-year-old Starkville, Miss., man who she says broke up her marriage by luring Davis away from her.

Suzann Savage Davis claims in an alienation of affection suit that Jansen Fair told Greg Davis he was looking forward to a tryst in Las Vegas “locked away in bed in each other’s arms.” The Commercial Appeal reported (http://bit.ly/RKQpqP ) the suit was filed Thursday in DeSoto County, Miss., Circuit Court.

It’s the latest in a string of legal battles for the Southaven mayor. He was ordered to repay more than $170,000 in city funds that the Mississippi auditor’s office says he misspent and he faces possible criminal charges in an FBI probe. Also, Davis’ former wife seeks to change their divorce terms in a separate court action.

In her suit, Suzann Davis says her former husband’s longtime “deviant homosexual adulterous association” with Fair came to light when she on April 5, 2010, “inadvertently discovered intimate communications” in which Fair told Davis he was looking forward to the Las Vegas trip.

Greg Davis’ lawyer, A.E. “Rusty” Harlow of Grenada, declined comment.

Martin Zummach, Suzann Davis’ lawyer said Friday that Fair is well-known to Davis.

“Jansen Fair was among her children that she took care of when she was a volunteer at a church nursery in Columbus,” he said.

The lawsuit claims that after April 5, 2010, Davis’s wife found out Davis and Fair met through Craigslist, “and they had their first rendezvous at a Starkville restaurant when Davis was there for a Mississippi State basketball game.

The suit also alleges that Fair subsequently “lured” Davis away by offering him a role in “certain lucrative business enterprises,” including a cosmetics store and “eco-friendly condominiums,” and that Fair “persuaded and enticed” Davis to leave his spouse.

In addition to the alienation of affection claim, the lawsuit claims intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy because Fair sought to get Davis to obtain financial information on his wife so Fair would know how much Suzann Davis would receive in a divorce settlement.

Zummach said the state auditor’s office has turned over “a lot of charge receipts” that indicate travel by Davis with Fair. Zummach also said his client has similar records from the city of Southaven, and that they show, among other things, “meals and in-suite movies.”

Davis, meanwhile, has filed a motion in DeSoto Chancery Court seeking to limit his former wife’s access to documents and information in the couple’s ongoing divorce settlement case. The request for a protective order, filed Oct. 4, claims Suzann Davis is seeking the information not because she needs it to prepare for trial, but for “annoyance, embarrassment, and to be unduly burdensome on the defendant.”

Alabama seeks to make divorce more difficult

Couples seeking a divorce would have a difficult time and face additional hurdles if they opt for a so-called covenant marriage proposed in a bill before the Alabama Legislature.

The measure would require couples entering into a covenant marriage to enter counseling before they’re married, and then attend counseling if they want to get a divorce. It also limits the reasons for which married couples can divorce.

“(The bill) was designed in part to say that we believe the family unit is the backbone of our society and is worth preserving,” said sponsor Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City. “It simply provides an option, and I stress, it’s simply an option.”

Williams said he thinks the proposal is necessary because of Alabama’s high divorce rate.

According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Alabama has the fourth-highest divorce rate in the country, with 12.7 divorces per 1000 marriages.

Some legislators question the timing and necessity of the bill.

“Just don’t feel like it’s necessary,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who was the sole “no” vote when the bill was approved in committee. “When people get married, they make a pact before God. Seems like when you get married, you pledge to stay married. I don’t see the need for a super contract.”

Birmingham Democrat Rep. Patricia Todd pondered whether it was something the Alabama Legislature really needed to address while facing drastic budget cuts.

“This is just bizarre to me, that we’re thinking about this when we need to raise revenue to be able to avoid cuts to DHR (the Department of Human Resources) and mental health programs – its ridiculous,” she said.

Todd, the only openly-gay lawmaker in the state Legislature, said she would offer an amendment to allow same-sex couples to enter into the same deal if the bill made it to the House.

Williams said he has received overwhelming support from conservative groups and constituents and that naysayers are in the minority.

If passed into law, the bill would limit the circumstances in which married couples could seek divorce. Those include:

• One spouse has committed adultery.

• A spouse abandons the shared home and refuses to return for at least one year.

• The other spouse physically, emotionally or sexually abuses the spouse seeking divorce or one of the couple’s children.

• The spouses have been living apart for at least two years.

The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence had opposed the bill, but worked with Sen. Williams to make changes. Executive Director Carol Gundlach says the group is still only neutral. She believes it’s a barrier to people leaving abusive relationships.

“We’re not thrilled with this bill,” she said. “But it’s much better than it was when introduced.”

Williams amended the measure to specify that victims of domestic violence would not have to attend counseling with their abuser before seeking a divorce, and they would not be required to continue to live in the same household.

“We would really support legislation that required counseling and a waiting period prior to entering marriage, but doing it on the back end is almost always going to increase barriers to victims trying to get out of a relationship,” Gundlach said.