No-fault divorce is now legal in every state, making filing for divorce in America—whether both parties agree or not—simply a matter of getting the proper paperwork.

New York just became the last state to adopt the legislation, passing a bill in early July that was signed into law this week by Governor David Paterson.

According to New York Law Journal, the law lets mutually consenting couples divorce "within six months of stating under oath their unions are 'irretrievably' broken." Proponents say such laws free couples from needing to prove that one spouse caused the divorce by adultery or abuse. But to suggest ugly divorce battles are a thing of the past would deny the devastation of divorce itself. There are plenty of reasons why making it easier to get a divorce is a bad idea. Opposition to the legislation has created unlikely allies out of the Roman Catholic Church, the New York chapter of the feminist group National Organization for Women (NOW), and the nonprofit Marriage Savers, founded by evangelical Mike McManus.

Marcia Pappas, president of New York's NOW, echoed the Catholic concern for the potential economic inequality for women caused by sanctioning "divorce on demand":

No-fault takes away any bargaining leverage the non-moneyed spouse has. Currently she can say, "If you want a divorce I'll agree, but you have to work out a fair agreement."

Robin Fretwell Wilson, an alumni professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, also noted that no-fault laws erroneously overlook the fact that sometimes, one spouse is at fault:

By bypassing mutual agreement, S3890 would treat nearly all divorces alike. Under current New York law, fault matters in property distribution and alimony only in rare instances, when "so egregious" as to be "a blatant disregard" of the marriage. Beating one's wife with a barbell until she is unrecognizable would count, but verbally abusing and striking one's wife and child while intoxicated would not, even if the abuse required a physician's care. Not all reasons for divorcing are equal. Often someone is at fault and that should matter if the law is to do justice.

In defense of no-fault divorce, Bonnie Erbe argued in U.S. News & World Report:

The longer we mollycoddle women, the less well women are going to fare economically. Women must realize that marriage is an economic partnership as well as a romantic one, and if women want to give up working to stay home to raise children, they are also giving up their financial futures as well.

Article continues below

Carrie Lukas countered Erbe at National Review Online:

But it's because marriage is an "economic partnership" that women shouldn't be "giving up their financial futures" when they stay home with young children. That legal partnership is supposed to make women (or men) feel safe in the decision to sacrifice their personal earnings for the good of the family unit. Enforcing a contract isn't "mollycoddling" women; it's the way the legal system is supposed to work.

McManus of Marriage Savers warned about the fiscal price tag of the bill by documenting the rise from 639,000 divorces in 1969—the year of the first no-fault law, instated in California—to more than a million by 1975. "It is a grave mistake certain to increase the divorce rate by up to 50 percent, and boost the state budget deficit by hundreds of millions annually," he said.

McManus advocates reforming divorce laws on a state-by-state basis, recommending that states lengthen mandatory separation periods prior to granting divorce and replace no-fault divorce (which he calls "unilateral divorce") with mutual consent divorce in cases involving children. His goal is reconciliation between spouses whenever possible.

Marriage Savers is one of several groups expressing a surge of concern for the state of marriage in the U.S. Marriage Savers works through "Community Marriage Policies" that establish standards requiring premarital counseling and ongoing marriage-enrichment courses, including conflict resolution and step-family support. According to the Maryland-based nonprofit, once a community gets a significant number of people to sign this type of agreement, the divorce rate drops.

The Manhattan Declaration, signed by prominent members of the Christian community last year, emphasized the importance of churches getting proactive about protecting marriage. A 2005 Ellison Research study of 872 Protestant churches showed that only 28 percent of the churches offered a marriage enrichment course. Perhaps indicating modest improvement, a 2008 study of 2,500 U.S. church congregations (including Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and "world religions") released by Faith Communities Today indicated that 60 percent of churches offer either parenting or marriage enrichment programs (the Ellison survey showed 20 percent offered a parenting or child development course).

Groups like Marriage Savers, Let's Strengthen Marriage, and Smart Marriages believe that marriage is in crisis, due in part to devaluing the institution through measures such as no-fault divorce. Many of these organizations take a preventative approach by encouraging community—especially church-based community—support and education. In these ways, they hope the church can lead the way to making divorce and other marriage-related problems less common.

The objective of churches becoming the benchmark for stable, healthy marriages seems to me something worth striving for.