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Mississippi Republican Andy Gipson Kills Domestic Violence Divorce Bill

Mississippi state Rep. Andy Gipson (R-Braxton)

Domestic violence is not grounds for divorce in Mississippi, where a Republican lawmaker, who is also a Baptist preacher, has rejected a bill that would have brought divorce law in the deeply religious state in line with the rest of the nation.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports Rep. Andy Gipson (R-Braxton), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Division B, announced he would not take up Senate Bill 2703 , a measure approved by the state Senate that would have made domestic violence the 13th legal ground for divorce in the state. First among the 12 current grounds is “natural impotence,” followed by adultery, incarceration, desertion, “habitual drunkenness,” “habitual and excessive use of opium, morphine or like drug,” “habitual cruel and inhuman treatment,” illness, bigamy, cuckolding resulting in pregnancy, and some incest.

Gipson, who is also pastor of the Gum Springs Baptist Church in Braxton, said he believed the bill would lead to more divorces. “Given our high divorce rate in this state, the floodgate is already open. We don’t need to completely tear it down,” he said, adding his personal opinion, rooted in his Christian belief, that “we need to find ways to strengthen marriages, not further ways to erode them.”

“If there’s a case of abuse that person needs to have change of behavior and a serious change of heart,” Gipson added. “Hopefully even in those cases restoration can happen.”

Gipson further argued the “habitual cruel and inhuman treatment” provision already allowed judges to grant divorces to domestic abusers, and that SB 2703 didn’t define domestic abuse narrowly enough. “To me the way it’s worded could possibly be interpreted that if someone raised their voice at their spouse, is that domestic assault?” he told the Clarion-Ledger.

Domestic violence victims’ advocacy groups blasted Gipson’s decision, with some saying the state’s antiquated divorce laws endanger women and children trapped in abusive marriages. “I was shocked,” Wendy Mahoney, executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told the Associated Press. “All we were seeking with that bill was to assist and support survivors of domestic violence who were seeking a divorce — to at least lighten their load a little bit.”

State Sen. Sally Doty (R-Brookhaven), who authored SB 2703, said she was “disappointed” the measure was rejected by Gipson. “I’m sure it’s even more disappointing to those victims of domestic violence who are out there in the state of Mississippi that need some help getting out of a marriage,” she told the Clarion-Ledger.

Victims’ advocates refuted Gipson’s assertion that the “habitual cruel and inhuman treatment” clause provided sufficient protection for abused spouses seeking divorces. The “habitual” standard, they say, requires a high burden of proof of repeated violence, and victims are often unable to sufficiently prove abuse. “Victims of domestic violence suffer from our current divorce system,” Sandy Middleton, director of the Center for Violence Prevention, told the Clarion-Ledger.

Mississippi and South Dakota are the only states without unilateral “no-fault” divorce laws, meaning one spouse can object to a divorce and delay the process, potentially for years.

Facing widespread national outrage, Gipson insisted in a Facebook post that “the law already provides a clear way out of a marriage for victims of domestic abuse, without the need for another bill.”

“To deny this reality is to ignore the current state of Mississippi law,” he wrote. Gipson also slightly walked back his earlier comment about the “restoration” of abusive marriages. “Divorce is a tragic event in the life of any couple,” he wrote. “Sometimes it is necessary and/or unavoidable, and especially so in cases of domestic abuse. Victims of cruel and inhuman treatment should get out. But Mississippi doesn’t need another bill to say what the law already says.”

Despite a restrictive divorce regime perpetuated by Christian leaders and lawmakers and its status as the nation’s most religious state, Mississippi has the nation’s 7th-highest divorce rate.

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