From the painting 'The Divorce' by Jean-Baptiste Lesueur
From 'The Divorce' by Jean-Baptiste Lesueur

The introduction of no-fault divorces in England and Wales in April was a much-needed step forwards in our marriage law. Previously, partners who wanted to split had to prove they had lived apart for two years. Otherwise, they had to prove a “fault” – based on adultery, bad behaviour or desertion – dragging couples through the courts in cases that could be distressing, for partners as well as their children. You might assume that everyone would celebrate this end to unnecessary suffering in relationships that have run their course.

But not everyone is happy with the change. According to the Ministry of Justice, there were more than 33,500 applications for divorce from April to June – up 22 per cent on last year (and that’s only the ones that were able to be processed, given the sudden spike in demand). This rise has led some Christian voices to declare that the new legislation presents an existential threat to the institution of marriage.

Colin Hart, director of the charity the Christian Institute, has described the new law as a “marriage-wrecker’s charter”. He said: “We are already seeing a deeply worrying shift in young people’s attitudes, away from Christian marriage and lifelong commitment to your husband or wife. Forty-two per cent of marriages already end in divorce but the Government is carrying on as if it wants it to be 100 per cent.” Hart is also the chairman of the campaign “Coalition for Marriage”, an umbrella group of organisations set up in 2012 to support “traditional marriage” and oppose reform, including gay marriage.

Of course, the Church of England itself has its origins in the breaking of marriage contracts: the desire of Henry VIII to produce an heir, and his turning against poor Catherine of Aragon. But many Christians believe the institution to be a sacred union protected by God. And as England and Wales free themselves of outdated marriage law, the Christian right in the United States is making noises about moving in the opposite direction.

No-fault divorce has long been the norm in the US. Their first no-fault law was passed during the sexual revolution of 1969 in California, and other states followed – the last, surprisingly, being New York in 2010. Now, following on from their “success” on abortion law, the Christian right may be looking at divorce as a future issue. An August report by the watchdog Media Matters collected statements from several right-wing figures who were critical of no-fault divorce. “Some of the loudest anti-LGBTQ conservative voices are also the biggest critics of no-fault divorce, in both cases making an appeal to tradition and what they see as a God-given natural order,” the report says.

Couples that wish to split should be able to do so, without influence from the Christian church, or any other religion. Let’s celebrate our progress in England and Wales, while bearing in mind that these rights must always be protected and defended.

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