State weighs issue of faith

Bill would give wives an equal stand in Orthodox Jewish divorce

General Assembly

February 19, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Some Maryland legislators have revived the fight for a bill that would place Orthodox Jewish women on an equal footing with their husbands in divorce proceedings.

Under Jewish law, a man must grant his wife a divorce degree, or get, to end a marriage. Without it, a Jewish woman is unable to remarry within the faith, and she becomes known as an agunah, or "chained woman."

Advocates of the bill say husbands use this power to demand favorable custody or visitation schedules - or money from their wife's family - during divorce negotiations.

"We have to persuade people that the rabbis cannot address this problem on their own, that they cannot undo what the Torah commands," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and the main sponsor of the House version of the bill.

Rosenberg first sponsored bills to address this issue in the late 1990s, but a September protest in front of the University of Baltimore School of Law to resolve the plight of a Park Heights woman renewed interest in a legislative solution.

If passed, the measure - up for hearings this week in House and Senate committees in Annapolis - would require those filing for divorce or not contesting one to also file an affidavit stating that they had removed all religious barriers to remarriage within their power.

The rabbis "have found no rabbinic way to grant a get when a husband refuses to do so," said Nancy F. Aiken, director of CHANA, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which supports victims of domestic abuse.

"A woman is left with the very really unfair and difficult choice of abandoning an Orthodox way of life or having a happy, healthy relationship for herself and the kids," Aiken said.

The inability to remarry is yet another obstacle for a woman who suffers domestic abuse to consider - especially if she has children. "The ability for her to go forward and support those children is very, very small and limited," Aiken said.

"It becomes a bargaining chip, and a bargaining chip that only one side has," she said.

In the past, legislators debated whether the bill would bring government into the practice of religion or whether it would adversely affect other religions' stances on divorce. The Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington, issued a letter this month stating that this year's bill does not "conflict with the marriage, divorce and annulment standards and practices of the Roman Catholic Church."

The proposed legislation for Maryland is similar to a New York State law passed in the early 1980s. It has not been tested in court, said Michael J. Broyde, professor at Emory University School of Law and an ordained rabbi. Bills have been proposed in other states, including New Jersey, Florida and Connecticut, but were not passed.

Broyde believes the rule would be deemed constitutional.

"In general, in American law, the government is much more capable of withholding a perk than it is capable of affirmatively compelling an activity," he said. "The government is saying here, `We have a perk here that you want. If you want your civil divorce, this is what you have to do.'"

Maryland's attorney general's office issued an opinion in January that "although the proposed legislation presents a substantial issue under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," the law would likely be upheld if challenged in court.

But Marc D. Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, an advocacy group, said the bill breaks down the separation of church and state.

"The problem is a real one and needs to be addressed within the Orthodox community urgently," Stern said. However, "they've chosen a means that's fundamentally inconsistent with our constitutional system."

The bill has not been challenged in New York because "at the end of the day people decide they'd really like to get on with their lives than get involved in litigation," he said.

The sole benefit of the rule is compliance with a religious obligation, he said. "As miserable and rotten and morally depraved as these people are, the fact is they have a constitutional point."

A man cannot be compelled to give his wife a get, so the Orthodox community has at times used forms of social influence to persuade husbands to come around.

"The community brings tremendous pressure to bear on these recalcitrant husbands who are abusing their wives this way," said David Conn, deputy director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "Many, many years ago, when Jews lived exclusively in Jewish villages, that kind of communal pressure was all that was needed."

The subject of the September protest had already been banned from entering Orthodox homes and shuls. The case has not yet been resolved, Aiken said.

Stern argues that other methods are available. For example, some Orthodox rabbis refuse to perform marriages unless the couple signs a prenuptial agreement to address the problem.

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