“Marriage Savers” Lobbies for Repeal of No-Fault Divorce

Picture yourself an 11-year-old boy witnessing a drunken argument between your parents, invites Pastor Bob Dailey of Bedford, Indiana. Words fly and so do objects, an ashtray narrowly missing your mother’s head. When you grow up and attempt to put this traumatic lesson to good purpose, do you work on domestic violence initiatives that will make women feel safer—both within their marriages or in leaving them if necessary? Or do you use the story to illustrate a new divorce reform movement that re-labels the liberalized “no-fault” divorce standards adopted in the 1970s as “unilateral divorce” inflicted on one spouse without the other’s consent?

If you chose answer B, ding-ding.

Dailey’s anecdote is included on the Web site of Reform Divorce, launched today by Marriage Savers, a 22-year old anti-divorce organization headed by conservative Christian president and co-founder Mike McManus. The new site is intended to fight for two divorce reform measures that would put the extra pain, suffering, hypocrisy and hoop-jumping back into the process of ending a marriage that the no-fault divorce reforms of the ’70s were meant to alleviate. Before the reforms (ironically begun by then-governor of California Ronald Reagan), couples had to prove wrongdoing such as adultery or abuse: a requirement that led to laughable instances of couples collaborating to stage “affairs” in order to justify the end of their union.

Basing its implied equation of liberal divorce laws with unjust war, McManus justifies the term “Unilateral Divorce” because “in four out of five cases, one spouse did not want the divorce, but had no choice.” In a press release announcing the new Reform Divorce Web site, McManus argued that one spouse’s freedom to divorce the other without permission was the reason behind America’s high divorce rate.

In the past, Marriage Savers’ organizational work seems to have focused on encouraging religious communities to adopt its Community Marriage Policies to make divorce and unmarried cohabitation less acceptable in their congregations; as well as establishing marriage counseling, couple-to-couple mentoring programs, and pre-marital classes for congregants in local churches and synagogues. But with its new Reform Divorce site, it intends to lobby for two new radically conservative divorce provisions: 1.) a “Mutual Consent” divorce law that would do away with the relatively painless divorces couples can attain without charging the other spouse with wrongdoing, and 2.) a “-Shared Parenting” clause, which would shift custody arrangements for children of divorced parents to require parents to share parenting time for a third of every week. With these two reforms, McManus’ fellow Divorce Reform advocates estimate they could suppress the divorce rate by 50%.

But the rationales behind these moves and the discussion of ways they will make divorce a more daunting prospect smacks of a paternalistic agenda: “If a parent knows they will have to interact with the child’s other parent while the child is growing up, there is less incentive to divorce,” explains one of McManus’s experts. And there’s a reason why. In the second paragraph of Reform Divorce’s discussion of why divorce reform legislation is needed, the group treads into what the feminist blogosphere would term MRA (Men’s Rights Activists) territory:

A father can lose his family, his home, access to his children and pay high child support. “Anyone who gets married has to worry about losing everything in a divorce,” asserts John Crouch, Director of Americans for Divorce Reform. Perhaps 50 million Americans in broken homes live under court orders, intrusively dictating terms of how each family is to live. No Fault allows one person to file on vague grounds of “incompatibility” even though the other spouse typically wants to save the marriage. The divorce is always granted. That universal outcome appears to violate the US Constitution’s Fifth Amendment guarantee that no person “be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” How can there be “due process” if every divorce is granted?

The anti-divorce cause has, somewhat quietly, been gaining steam among religious conservatives, perhaps in large part due to their sheepishness over their own high divorce rates, which came increasingly into public light during debates over gay marriage. The assault on Christian marriages, many critics have dryly noted, seems to be a bit more of a local threat. Seemingly in response, over the past few years, there’s been a renewed effort to get evangelical and Catholic churches involved in anti-divorce campaigns. Complaints about no-fault divorce are a renewed focus of Christian conservative activism, and Pope Benedict XVI recently addressed a Knights of Columbus-sponsored conference on the “victims of abortion and divorce.”

Reform Divorce seems to want to take this a step further with its language of “unilateral” assault, as though the alleged 80% of divorcees who didn’t want their divorce are automatic victims of the system, and not individuals who hold responsibility for the dissolution of their marriages. The Web site lays out a plan of five groups of people who could be mobilized to fight for more stringent divorce laws, including adult children of divorced parents or of unmarried parents, family members of divorced couples, the 80% of divorcees Marriage Savers considers “victims of divorce,” and also the officials, social service workers, judges, and lawmakers who work with divorced people and who might want “to do something to reduce divorce, including changing the law.”

Of these groups, I find the last two the most troubling, in the way they echo the religious right’s move to frame women who choose abortion as victims in need of paternalistic state care rather than a range of options and a real ability to exercise their rights. In that light, it’s unsurprising that the recent papal visit to the Knights of Columbus function should link the two, saying “Abortion and divorce… bring great suffering to the lives of so many people of so many families and of society.” The focus on the families and society is familiar communitarian ethics that dwell on third-party “victims” at the expense of individual rights. But both issues are also intensely personal choices now being transformed into vague, hostile entities that suddenly, unilaterally, attack individuals who would otherwise never have a reason or desire to choose abortion or divorce. I say watch these arguments for future developments, but hopefully not future resolutions protecting us all from ourselves.