Lawmaker sees error on divorce

It is not unprecedented for Mississippi politicians to acknowledge they misunderstood an issue and change their minds about it as more information comes to light.

They usually don’t do it, though, as quickly as state Rep. Andy Gipson.  The Republican from Simpson County, in a matter of days, went from single-handedly killing a proposal to add domestic abuse as grounds for divorce to resuscitating the idea.

Gipson says he was not swayed to change his mind by the torrent of criticism he received after declining to let the committee he chairs consider the Senate-passed proposal.

Instead, Gipson, an attorney and Baptist preacher, said he was operating under a misunderstanding that Mississippi law already had domestic abuse covered in allowing divorce on the grounds of “habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.”

Over the past week, Gipson said, he was educated to the reality of the situation by victims of domestic abuse and The Center for Violence Prevention, a Mississippi-based group that has for years advocated for changing the state’s divorce laws to make is easier for abused spouses to get out of a marriage.

What they told him, and apparently Gipson confirmed, is that judges have been inconsistently applying the “habitual cruel and inhuman treatment” provision.

Some accept that one incident of physical abuse is enough to meet the standard.

Others take the current law to mean that the abuse has to occur multiple times before it is considered habitual, and that the allegedly abused party has to provide corroboration to prove it.

This sometimes creates the undesirable proposition of forcing minor children to testify against one of their parents, of whom they might also be afraid.

This week, Gipson offered an amendment to another Senate bill to clear up any confusion.

It stipulates that one instance of physical abuse is enough grounds to petition for a divorce.

It spells out that non-physical abuse can also be considered grounds for divorce if it is beyond the pale of what would be considered typical differences between spouses.  And it says that spouses can be their own witness to the abuse.

All of these changes are so sensible that they won unanimous approval in the House. The Senate should concur.

Those who put pressure on Gipson to open his eyes to what was going on in the divorce courts deserve credit, as does Gipson for recognizing he was initially wrong.

When couples divorce, it is regrettable.  Divorce affects not just the married parties, but their families, their friends and society at large. As with marriage, divorce should not be entered into lightly.

But when a marriage becomes destructive, when the relationship degenerates to the point that one spouse assaults the other, the law should not try to compel them to work things out.

Chances are the marriage is beyond repair.  It’s better to recognize that than wait for the violence to multiply.