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Unlikely allies

Marriage | Two normally opposed organizations join forces to fight no-fault divorce in New York

NEW YORK-New York's no-fault divorce legislation united two unlikely parties in opposition to it: the feminist National Organization for Women and the conservative New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. Both groups argue the legislation hurts women and children. Despite repeated attempts to pass legislation, New York is the only one of the 50 states that does not have no-fault divorce. This year, with Democrats controlling both chambers of the state legislature, the Senate finally passed a no-fault divorce bill.

Under New York's current law, couples can only divorce due to cruel and inhumane treatment, adultery, abandonment, or after they live apart for more than a year. Under new legislation, if one couple states under oath that the marriage is "irretrievably broken for a period of at least six months," the marriage can be dissolved.

In a memo opposing the bill, the National Organization for Women (NOW) said no-fault divorce favors the monied spouse (usually the husband) over the other. If one party actually is at fault, the new legislation won't take that into account when dividing property-a measure that often has created financial hardship for women and children. Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms (NYCF), said that his organization has worked with NOW before to fight sex trafficking, but not as closely as they worked together on this bill. He found that the organizations complemented each other, with NOW lobbying downstate Democrats and NYCF working on upstate Republicans.

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New York's divorce rate (2.9 divorces per 1,000 marriages in 2007) is among the lowest in the 50 states, although three states-Illinois, Iowa, and Massachusetts-have divorce rates that are lower. Critics of fault-based divorce law say that the law does not prevent divorce but simply forces people to perjure themselves to divorce, accusing spouses of nonexistent neglect or abuse.

McGuire said he and others are realistic about the fact that divorce happens: "What I'm looking for is legislation that still strengthens the institution of marriage while recognizing the reality of divorce." For instance, some family advocates lobby for measures that would allow couples to enter a "covenant marriage" that would require them to undergo counseling before getting a divorce. Other proposals give financial incentives to stay in a marriage and stay faithful: For instance, an adulterous husband walking away from a marriage might get just 25 percent of the assets.

After the Senate passed no-fault divorce legislation, the bill went to the New York Assembly, which so far has passed one of three bills they need to pave the way for no-fault divorce. The legislature, however, is running out of time to pass identical legislation.

Although pro-family and feminist organizations collaborated in fighting this bill, they'll go back to being opponents afterward. The two groups are battling over the Reproductive Health Act, a bill that would make abortion legal in New York whether Roe v. Wade falls or not.

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