A governor's advisory commission today put in final form its recommendations for easing the state's divorce laws, giving Gov. Harry Hughes a controversial election-year package of reforms that immediately drew fire from the Catholic Church.
Under the plan, a divorce could be sought after a separation of one year in a contested case, rather than the current three-year period. In addition, several of Maryland's legal grounds for divorce would be dropped, leaving only two justifications--adultery and a broad new category called "living apart."
This new category has a special provision that would not stop divorce proceedings if a separated couple was found to have sexual intercourse. Under current law, intercourse with a spouse during separation erases pending proceedings.
If the plan is adopted, several little-used legal rationales for divorce, such as desertion, impotence, incarceration for a felony and living apart without consent would no longer be part of Maryland law.
The commission also recommended reforming child custody laws, an issue many members feared could be the stickiest if the package reaches the General Assembly session later this year. The commission approved language that would make "the best interests of the child" the overriding factor for judges to consider in custody cases.
The commission's proposal would eliminate the current criteria commonly used in child custody cases, which presumes that a child fares best with the mother, the biological parent (as opposed to a foster parent) or continuing to live in the child's current household.
Under the plan, judges would have direct authority to award "joint or shared custody." Many Maryland judges already award joint custody, but others have shied away for fear that they were overstepping their bounds.
The custody issue provided the only sharp divisions on the usually unanimous 15-member commission, which has been meeting for more than two years.
"The whole thrust of the package," said commission chairman Beverly Anne Groner, "is to simplify, to make more realistic, to make less costly, and to conform to the needs of the citizenry." Groner, a Montgomery County lawyer, said the package had a "reasonable chance" to pass into law this year.
Hughes, who was on vacation today, had not received the recommendations and would make no comments until he did, according to his press secretary, Lou Panos.
Immediately after the commission met, representatives of the Catholic Church said they opposed many of the changes and would lobby against those proposals if they reached the General Assembly.
"The basic thing we're concerned about is the sanctity of the family," said the Rev. John Geaney, spokesman for Baltimore Archbishop William T. Borders. "What this proposal does is make divorce that much easier."
Thomas Mousley, coordinator of the Single-Single Again Ministry of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said while he agreed with most parts of the divorce law package, he opposed changing the criteria for child custody and shortening the time period for divorces.