The Virginia House of Delegates today approved what detractors snidely referred to as "the women's bill" -- legislation that would establish the concept of "marital property" in divorce cases in the state and set court guidelines for dealing with child custody, property rights and support questions.
The measure, the first of its kind to be sponsored by all nine women legislators in the House, easily cleared that chamber on a 70 to 22 vote but not before several male opponents of the bill tried to strike some of its key provisions.
"I'm intimidated by the tremendous opposition this bill has caused on the floor," said Del. Mary Sue Terry (D-Patrick). She complained that "plenty of red herrings" had been introduced during the nearly 40 minutes of debate on the measure.
Emphasizing that the bill clarified and expanded an existing section of a vague divorce law, Terry said the measure addressed the concerns of home makers who have been fearful of the controversial Equal Rights Amendment.
"The same women the opponents of the ERA say they want to protect -- the homemakers -- are the same women this bill speaks to," Terry said. The nine women sponsors of the measure are divided on the ERA issue but had met together to draft the divorce law proposal.
The legislation would establish the concept of marital property and the rights and interests of each party, husband and wife, to share in the accumulated net worth of the marriage regardless of monetary contribution. In addition, both spouses in a divorce situation would be given equal consideration in the judge's decision on child custody.
"If a couple is married for a period of time, and one party is doing all the paid work while the other party is doing all the home work, the one doing all the home work should not be precluded from owning property," said Del. Elise Heins (D-Arlington).
Marital property rights differ from community propoerty rights, she said, in that the latter is a more rigid provision that "splits every dollar earned 50-50" and "the wife who sits home and eats bon bons gets the same as the wife who scrubs floors."
Supporters of the bill said it would protect the spouse, most likely the woman, who stays home and raises the family only to be left without income or property resources if the other spouse divorces and remarries.
Opponents of the legislation, already law in the Maryland, complained that current law already treats spouses and their property equally in divorce cases. The bill's backers said, however, that judges have no tandards to guide their decisions in such matters.
One controversial provision in the bill would make adultery a bar to recieving any monetary award in a divorce case.
Heinz said property rights "ought not to be forfeited because of marital misconduct, but in Virginia it is an ancient and revered rule that nobody who has committed misdeeds can be awarded alimonv and support."
Del. Gladys Keating (D-Fairfax) said women had been quietly lobbing all session for passage of what she termed "the family security bill."
But Del. Hardaway Marks (D-Hopewell) had a different view of the legislation, which still must be approved by a generally more sympathetic Senate.
"The bill is going to make more people live together if they aren't married," he said after the vote. "And those who are already married are going to have to stay together."
Northern Virginian legislators supported the bill, with the exception of Dels. Warren E. Barry, Robert Harris and Robert Thoburn, all Fairfax Republicans.
In other assembly action, a House committee heard testimony today on a bill sponsored by Del. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax) that would prohibt the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. from charging for local calls.
C&P has applied to the State Corporation Commission for permission to install special measuring equipment on business phones throughout the state and hopes to begin charging for the number and lengh of their local calls.