The bill, called S.B. 270, would create an Alabama Covenant Marriage Act. This would add an option to Alabama marriage licenses that would require pre-marriage counseling and would also require a couple to receive counseling before filing for a divorce.
“You look at the statistics in the United States, and the numbers are not very positive,” said Sen. Greg Reed (R-Jasper), who is listed as a co-sponsor of the bill. “We see that one in two marriages end in divorce. If there are ways, through whatever means are necessary, for people to see more of a long-term commitment and have more of a solid focus on working out their relationship differences and difficulties, we need to offer some additional support to people in being able to do that.”
However, opponents of the bill say that the bill would not just strengthen marital bonds, but would strengthen the hold of abusers over their victims.
“A domestic violence perpetrator does everything that he or she can to establish and maintain power and control over the other partner,” Lila Spears, outreach advocate for Daybreak, an advocacy resource for domestic violence victims in Walker County. “This would be just another way to have control over the partner, over the victim.”
Carol Gundlach, executive director of the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, echoed Spears’ concerns, “This is just made for abusers, because abusers want to keep the victims locked into the marriage.”
Spears recognized that the high divorce rate is not a positive thing, but in some cases it becomes necessary. She said victims rarely see the danger going into the relationship and could become trapped into a covenant marriage.
“Relationships that often devolve into domestic violence don’t start that way,” Spears said. “They start out being either pretty normal or really fast and seemingly hyper-romantic. Oftentimes, you don’t see it in the beginning or you don’t see the warning signs, like jealousy and possessiveness and that type thing. So by the time a lot of young couples get married, it’s kind of too late.”
One of the largest issues for the opponents is the requirement for couples counseling prior to divorce. They stress that, in cases of abuse, that could be dangerous and futile.
“In domestic violence situations, couples counseling is never recommended because it is dangerous to the victim,” Spears explained. “If a victim, in couples counseling, reveals too much about what’s been going on in the home, a lot of times there is very serious retribution for that. So, couples counseling can be a really volatile situation. Domestic violence is not a relationship problem, it’s not ‘we can’t get along,’ it’s a problem with the perpetrator. The victim can’t do anything to change that person’s behavior.”
Also at the heart of the issue is the quality of the counseling services that would be available.
“There’s not any language about who certifies the counselors,” Spears said. “For example, it doesn’t say that the marriage counselor in question would have to be a licensed therapist or a licensed marriage counselor, and it also doesn’t say that the clergy who could also do the counseling has any kind of special training or license or any type of certification that they have the capacity to do counseling. So they may not, in fact, be qualified to do the counseling.”
The divorce itself could also be an issue, since the bill sets very specific requirements for divorce and does not allow for a “no fault” divorce, which Spears and Gundlach said was the most used reason for divorce in abuse situations.
“The language says there has to be ‘proof of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.’ I don’t know how much proof there is of emotional abuse,” Spears said. “A lot of times there isn’t even proof, for court purposes, of physical abuse. It would be very difficult to prove abuse, for court purposes.
“There is also the divorce waiting period. A year is a long time to wait on a divorce if you’re being stalked and harassed. Things can get a lot worse in that amount of time.”
Reed and other sponsors of the bill have recognized there could be unintended consequences that warrant more consideration of the matter.
“I don’t know that I gave that a lot of analysis or thought in looking at the legislation,” Reed said. “I think my whole idea was, if we can give people more strength and stability in their marriage, then that’s a good thing.”
The committee considering the bill is attempting to create new language that would make reasonable exceptions in cases where domestic violence is alleged.
“We have talked with Phil Williams, who sponsored the bill, at considerable length,” Gundlach said. “He’s been real good and open and has been clear that he does not want to do anything to make domestic violence victims stay in a violent relationship. We gave him some amendments, and he made some amendments on his own that he thought would be helpful to domestic violence victims.”
Gundlach said Williams and the other members took the criticism to heart and have made many changes to the originally proposed legislation.
“I have not yet seen a bill with the amendments in it,” Gundlach continued. “There were quite a few amendments at the committee meeting this week. They carried the bill over again. I think this is the third week they’ve carried it over. They have asked him to bring a substitute for it that has all the amendments incorporated, so everyone is clear what the bill says now. I’ll have a better idea after I see the sub if this is something we think we can live with.”
Gundlach remains somewhat skeptical about the ability to write a bill that would safeguard against this type of issue.
“There seem to be a lot of ‘we’re going to make it harder to get divorced’ bills this session,” Gundlach said. “Any bill that puts impediments in the way of divorce is dangerous for domestic violence victims, and it’s very difficult to write the bill in a way that it is not dangerous.”