By Mike Stetzer
A Maryland divorce bill would put women on an equal plane with their husbands during Orthodox Jewish divorces by requiring men to remove all religious barriers for ex-wives to remarry within the faith. But the proposed law has some people wondering whether this state government is overstepping its bounds by entering into religious affairs.
Delegate Sandy I. Rosenberg recently introduced a Maryland divorce bill to address what he believes to be a serious problem during Orthodox Jewish divorces. Under Jewish law, a man must grant his wife a divorce decree, or "get," to end a marriage. If an Orthodox Jewish husband does not grant his wife this divorce decree, the woman is considered to be an agunah, or "chained woman," and is not allowed to remarry within the faith, according to the Baltimore Sun story.
Rosenberg and proponents of this bill say that some Orthodox Jewish men have used this religious power solely to their advantage during Maryland divorces and put women in undesirable situations in which they have to break away from the Orthodox faith in order to physically and financially protect themselves and their children. Rosenberg also claims that some Orthodox Jewish men have used this religious power to make favorable child custody and visitation requests and even command money from the wife's family in exchange for the divorce decree.
Under Rosenberg's Maryland divorce bill, Orthodox Jewish men filing for or contesting a divorce would also have to file an affidavit acknowledging that they have removed all religious barriers within their power for their soon-to-be ex-wives to remarry. Rosenberg and other proponents of this Maryland divorce bill have said that Orthodox Jewish rabbis have found no way to grant a get when a husband refuses to do so; thus leaving the necessity for such legislation.
Naturally, this Maryland divorce bill raises questions about the separation of church and state. In fact, Rosenberg introduced a similar Maryland divorce bill in the 1990s which legislators debated on this principle and eventually struck down. The general counsel of an advocacy group named the American Jewish Congress feels that this year's Maryland divorce bill is a clear violation of the separation of church and state.
Specifically, Marc D. Stern says in the Baltimore Sun story that this Maryland divorce bill is "fundamentally inconsistent" with the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an established religion." Stern does admit that this problem exists within the Orthodox Jewish community and needs to be addressed by that community as soon as possible.
While Stern says that such a Maryland divorce bill would be unconstitutional, others don't agree. Earlier this month, the lobbying arm of the Baltimore and Washington archdioceses sent a letter saying that this Maryland divorce bill would be acceptable. Specifically, the Maryland Catholic Conference said that this year's bill does not conflict with the Roman Catholic Church and it marriage, divorce, and annulment standards and practices.
The Maryland attorney general office also offered its opinion, saying that while this divorce bill may present an issue under the Establishment Clause, it would likely be upheld if challenged in court. As an example, New York has had a similar divorce law for Orthodox Jewish divorces since the early 1980s. This New York divorce law has yet to be challenged in court.
Similar divorce bills have been introduced but ultimately failed in New Jersey, Florida and Connecticut during the years. This Maryland divorce bill is up for hearings this week in the House and Senate committees in Annapolis.