Utah lawmakers seek control over traditional marriage, divorce

While most talk concerning the so-called sanctity of marriage invloves preventing gays from saying “I do,” this year, the Utah Legislature is attempting to exercise control over opposite-gender unions.

One bill, HB132, sponsored by Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, will provide incentives for engaged couples to invest in “premarital education.” If couples take the course, the marriage license fee is reduced from $50 to $20. The six-hour class can be provided in a religious setting, meaning members of the Mormon faith may use counseling sessions with bishops and other untrained clergy toward the discount. The bill also creates a three-day waiting period to prevent so-called hasty weddings.

Another bill, HB290, sponsored by Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, revises Utah’s divorce-orientation law that requires separating parents to take a class on the effects of divorce and which offers resources for repairing relationships.  Under the proposed law, the course must be completed before filing for divorce. The mandate is waived for those who have experienced an abusive relationship.  The bill tries to move the education about divorce to the beginning of the process, in an attempt to stop divorces from happening.  The course will cost the taxpayers approximately $140,000 per year, according to the budget analysis submitted with the bill.

HB290 moved out of the House Health and Human Services committee with a 6-3 vote.

“Some will say that the government has no roll in taking action,” Nielson said. “I propose that society does have a stake in the family… I state without equivocation that we have an interest as a society in inciting and encouraging people to think carefully and be well-informed in a way that’s effective before making a decision that impacts themselves and their children.”

Governments must recognize the family unit in the same way that they must recognize civil rights, he added. Calling marriage an institution ordained by God, Nielson said governments must encourage married couples to stay together.

Critics of the bill voiced concerns about victims of domestic abuse and their reluctance to take a course.

“When an individual is in an abusive relationship and has decided to end a marriage, that is a significant choice and step,” said Ned Searle of the Utah Domestic Violence Council.

Incidents of violence and even murder are much more likely to occur when a partner is attempting to leave the relationship, he said. Also, because the decision to leave is already difficult enough in many cases, adding another hurdle, such as applying for a waiver from the class, can be potentially dangerous.

Eric Johnson, a divorce and family lawyer, pointed out the difficult bureaucracy involved in the course, where the filer must take the course first and the other partner must take it later.

“It is patronizing to tell mature adults that they need to be educated about how difficult divorce is and how it impacts families,” Johnson said.

The premarital counseling measure cleared the House Workforce Services and Community and Economic Development Committee with a 4-2 vote. The bill is designed to encourage fidelity within marriage and promote the idea that traditional families are essential to the government, Pitcher said.

“When you buy something you get an owner’s manual. But when you get married you don’t get a warranty with that marriage,” Pitcher said. “This is a catch area to keep a marriage together.”


Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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