Texas bill would require 10-hour class for some spouses seeking divorce
12:00 AM CDT on Friday, March 20, 2009
AUSTIN – A spouse seeking a divorce would face an additional hurdle if the couple has children – a required 10-hour course – under legislation offered by a Panhandle Republican.
Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampa, a social conservative who has frequently offered measures altering marriage law, said he is hoping to spare kids the anxiety and emotional stress that comes with their parents' separation.
His bill would require workshops in "conflict management, communication skills and forgiveness skills," which he contends would help reduce the state's 50 percent divorce rate. The workshops can cost up to $150.
Under the bill, a spouse seeking a divorce would have to complete a 10-hour course before filing court papers; otherwise, the request would be dismissed. The other spouse would be encouraged to take the same course within 60 days. If he or she did not, a judge could use that as a factor when awarding property, alimony and even child custody.
The bill has been popular among social conservatives, marriage counselors and some lawyers. They said the bill is not designed for "horrible" marriages, but to save unions that have fallen on hard times.
"Many people walk into my office not wanting a divorce," said Cecilia Wood, an Austin family law attorney. "This course is designed to provide them with other answers."
Opponents said the bill, while well-intentioned, would present a hardship for the poor and a disaster for victims of domestic violence.
Joan Jenkins, a lawyer with the Texas Family Law Foundation, said it's offensive that the bill would allow judges to consider child custody based on which parent attended a workshop.
Chisum's bill excludes anyone with "evidence" of domestic violence, including police reports or doctors' notes. But women's health advocates said those measures don't go far enough.
Martha Beard-Duncan, a staff attorney with the Texas Advocacy Project, said as few as 20 percent of domestic violence victims file police reports.
"We can all agree that society should not be based on abusive marriages that cannot end because of a class that people cannot afford," Beard-Duncan said.
The bill was left pending in the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee this week.
Chisum, a leading social conservative in the House, has tackled marriage before. He sponsored the 2005 Texas constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and the 2007 law that created a statewide marriage-education program that doubled marriage license fees but offered a discount to couples taking a counseling course.