BISMARCKâ€”North Dakotans wanting to get a divorce would need to wait one year and go through mandatory marriage counseling if a proposed law is approved.
Senate Bill 2367 would affect married couples with children. Marriages with substantiated allegations of domestic abuse would be exempt.
Within the one-year waiting period, couples would need to participate jointly or separately in at least 10 one-hour marriage counseling sessions. The counseling could be provided by a paid or volunteer counselor, clergy member or any state-certified or licensed marriage mediator.
At least four counseling sessions would need to focus on post-marital financial planning.
A final divorce decree would not be granted or a final order entered until each party submits to the court certification of completion of the marital counseling.
Bill supporters emphasized the negative impact that divorce has on children, citing research that these children are more apt to live in poverty, do worse in school and are involved more frequently in crime and drug abuse.
However, the State Bar Association of North Dakota said the bill would mean additional expense for clients, delay their getting on with their lives and create additional opportunity for financial mischief and physical violence.
Bill sponsor Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, said the goal is to help reach agreements acceptable to both parties, to promote the childrenâ€™s developmental needs and to prepare parents for future co-parenting roles if they do divorce.
â€œIf we can save marriages or if we can have discussion if the marriage is not going to last to have a smooth transition, I think that will help the kids, and thatâ€™s what this bill is about,â€ Larsen said.
From 2005 to 2009, there were 9,574 divorces in North Dakota, said Tom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance. Of these, 4,543 divorces involved 7,985 minor children, he said.
Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, said bill supporters didnâ€™t provide information about the effect on children who live with parents who stay married even though they dislike each other.
Freier said studies show the most important thing is an intact home and family.
â€œThe damage of a family breakup is greater than mom and dad not getting along all the time,â€ he said.
Sen. Curtis Olafson, R-Edinburg, asked Freier how he could argue to keep people in a marriage for another year when thereâ€™s been infidelity.
â€œThere is no marriage where the two individuals cannot make a decision that, no matter what the cause of their wanting to have a divorce, that it cannot be saved,â€ Freier said.
Sen. Dave Nething, R-Jamestown, asked about the â€œsubstantiated allegations of domestic abuseâ€ exception and said it was subjective. Janelle Moos of the North Dakota Council on Abused Womenâ€™s Services also wanted more clarification on what the wording meant.
â€œI think we have to be very cognizant of victims that either do or donâ€™t come forward publicly,â€ she said.
She expressed concern about required marriage counseling for victims and perpetrators.
The Rev. Paul Schauer of Wilton, N.D., also spoke against the bill. Schauer, who is divorced, said he was â€œsomewhat offendedâ€ about the comments made about divorced people and their children.
As a pastor who has counseled couples going through divorce, he said he was â€œdeeply opposedâ€ to forced counseling.
â€œCounseling works best when a person recognizes that they need help and that they freely choose to seek help,â€ he said. â€œIf you force someone to see a counselor, thereâ€™s very little hope for growth.â€
If counseling was required, Schauer said the number of couples divorcing would overwhelm his time. He also said the bill allows couples to do the counseling together or apart.
â€œIf I donâ€™t meet with them as a couple, itâ€™s not going to work,â€ he said.
He also questioned what would determine if someone has successfully completed counseling, saying someone could just sit there and refuse to talk during the sessions.
â€œIf weâ€™re realistic about this, if a partner has reached the point of filing for divorce, no amount of marital counseling will fix that,â€ Schauer said. â€œCounseling is not a magical treatment â€¦ if theyâ€™ve filed for divorce, the plane has already left the runway.â€
The Senate Judiciary Committee did not take immediate action on the bill.