State lawmakers chip away at the few remaining state statutes that uphold matrimony as a fundamental building block of society.
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH – “We talk a lot about the sanctity of marriage. We talk a lot about commitment to marriage. We talk about it being the foundation of families,” said Rep. Lucy Allen (D-Franklin) during a committee hearing on a bill regarding Alienation of Affection and Criminal Conversation. But is it just that – all talk?
That is beginning to look like the case as lawmakers chip away at the few remaining state statutes that uphold matrimony as a fundamental building block of society.
House Bill 1110, which passed the Ways and Means Committee and is headed to Judiciary II, was introduced by Rep. Melanie Goodwin (D-Montgomery), who said it was needed to clarify how these two tort laws should be applied and to help attorneys better advise their clients. Alienation of Affection is a civil action by a husband or wife taken against a third party when that party’s conduct has deprived the husband or wife of the love and affection of his or her spouse. It should give pause to anyone considering wooing someone who is married. Criminal conversation, despite the name, is a civil action brought in cases of adultery. It allows a husband or wife to sue a third party for having sexual relations with his or her spouse.
The bill, as amended, would prevent a man or woman from suing an intruder into his or her marriage under these two torts unless the person’s actions occurred during the time the couple lived together or within 60 days after their separation. It would also effectually legalize adultery beyond these timeframes, since the criminal statute against fornication is rarely, if ever, enforced.
“The part I have a problem with, is when you are separated, you are still married. This moves it out to 60 days. I guess after 60 days they’re vulnerable for anybody to try to lure them away from that marriage situation to have an affair or whatever,” said Rep. Mark Hilton (R-Catawba), who spoke in opposition to the bill. “We need to focus in on that separation time that ought to be time to be working on ways to reconcile that marriage. This, I think, opens it up to make that more difficult.”
Rep. Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) agreed that the bill undermines the family.
“There is no one that can dispute the value of a family that has a man and a woman in a home raising children,” Tillis said. “And to the extent that we have only a few laws on our books that really promote that, I think we have to take it very seriously when we start taking those things off the books.”
The initial bill would not even have included a 60-day waiting period after the day of separation but would have allowed a person to turn on the charm the minute a husband or wife left a spouse and to begin a sexual relationship with that person with impunity. It would have also reduced the statute of limitations on the law from three years to one year, meaning a wronged spouse who found out more than a year after the date of separation that his or her prior marriage partner had been having an affair would have no legal recourse against the person who helped to break up the marriage.
An amendment introduced by Rep. Allen changed the bill to allow for suits to be filed up to three years after the last act of “alienation of affection” or “criminal conversation.” Goodwin said she worked with Rep. Sarah Stephens (R-Alleghany) to finetune the committee substitute, adding the 60-day time period and making the statute of limitations two years. She did not oppose Allen’s amendment.
Rep. Stephens said the law was needed to protect those who might start dating a person who is separated but not yet divorced and find themselves facing a “criminal conversation” suit. As the law currently stands, they could be sued even if they did not know the person was still married.
Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg) went so far as to say that maybe state law should be changed to eliminate the yearlong period between filing for separation and divorce proceedings and instead grant divorces 48 hours after couples separate.
“These folks have said they cannot tolerate to be under the bond of holy matrimony for whatever reason,” he said. “Why in the world are we going to make it more difficult for them to move on with their lives …?”
Rep. Tillis, married for 22 years, said he would not be a happily married father of two college-age children had N.C. had, when he was a newlywed, a “48-hour rule” as Alexander described.
“I thank God that I didn’t have that option because I wouldn’t have the life I have today …” he said. “You can point to so many problems that we have today because of the erosion of the family structure and the erosion of this notion that marriage should literally be – if you live up to something you said on the altar – something that is only going to end with your death.”
Jere Royall, the North Carolina Family Policy Council’s Director of Community Impact, called on the committee to either omit the first half of the bill and deal only with the sentence limiting litigation to individuals and not companies, or to at least amend it so that wrongdoing third parties could still be held legally accountable for their adulterous actions.
“Even after separation, a husband and wife are still married and adultery or criminal conversation is still adultery,” Royall told lawmakers. “As for alienation of affection, we understand that after separation affections have often already been alienated. But there are cases where economic issues have led to separation and a third party may still commit wrongful and malicious acts that lead to alienation of affection within a marriage.”
In a separate interview, Royall pointed out that while there is no way to measure the deterrent value of these tort laws, “one thing I can tell you with certainty is that anybody who is ever sued under one of these laws will think twice before interfering in a marriage again.”
“Our contention is that the law needs to protect the marriage as long as a marriage is a marriage,” he added, lamenting the 60-day limit in the bill.
Whereas Stephens seemed worried about protecting adults who are dating people who are still married, Royall and the North Carolina Family Policy Council are more concerned with protecting children from the harms that can accompany cohabitating households often formed in the wake of wrecked marriages. Studies show rates of child abuse are six times higher in step-families than in intact biological families and a whopping 33 times higher when the mother is cohabiting with a boyfriend who is not the biological father.(1)
“Like Rep. Allen said, lawmakers talk about the importance of marriage and family and want marriages in North Carolina to be strong, but at the same time, they don’t seem to want to keep and enforce laws that give folks a fighting chance to stay married,” said the Rev. Mark Creech. “Even if they don’t always make it to court these tort laws are a reminder to those who want to intrude on and defile a marriage that they are putting themselves at a legal risk. If we weaken these laws, we’re further rolling out the red carpet to adultery and the breakdown of the family, the bedrock of our communities.”
(Crouse, J.C., “Cohabitation: Consequences for Mothers and Children,” presentation at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Oct. 11-14, 2004, U.N. Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family )