March 1, 2017 11:04:11 AM
JACKSON -- Supporters of a bill that would have added domestic abuse as grounds for divorce in Mississippi were outraged after it died in a House committee, whose chairman argued that the legislature shouldn't pass measures "opening the floodgates" to more divorces.
Senate Bill 2703, which passed the Mississippi Senate, wasn't taken up Tuesday by the House Judiciary Committee Division B at a deadline for legislation to advance.
Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said domestic abuse is covered in current divorce law under "habitual cruel and inhuman treatment."
"If there's a case of abuse that person needs to have change of behavior and a serious change of heart," said Gipson, who is also a Baptist minister. "Hopefully even in those cases restoration can happen."
He added that the bill did not define domestic violence well enough and openly worried that it could be interpreted as raising your voice. He added, "I think every couple in Mississippi would have grounds for divorce under that standard."
"I was shocked," said Wendy Mahoney, the executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "All we were seeking with that bill was to assist and support survivors of domestic violence who were seeking a divorce -- to at least lighten their load a little bit."
Without explicit language addressing domestic abuse, Mahoney said, Mississippi divorce law does not allow for emotional and financial abuse.
Mississippi currently has 12 reasons for divorce, including adultery, impotence and habitual drunkenness. But people can struggle to divorce if both spouses don't consent. Senate Bill 2483, which would have added separation for over two years if the couple has no children under age 20, died Tuesday in the same committee as the domestic violence bill.
Senate Bill 2702, which also would have provided separation as grounds for divorce, died earlier in the Senate.
"We need to be adopting policies to support marriage and people sticking together," Gipson said.
Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, who introduced the bill at the request of domestic violence advocacy groups, said she was surprised the bill didn't pass. A similar version passed the House last session.
"A different chairman would probably have let that out of committee," Doty said. "I have no explanation, but I think perhaps the chairman needs to give us an explanation."
Some argue that the word "habitual" requires more than one instance of domestic violence. That standard, Doty said, can be too high a standard and is subject to a judge's discretion. Because domestic violence often occurs without witnesses, she added, victims often can't provide the corroborating evidence under that statute.
Doty said she will reintroduce the bill next year.
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