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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman September 28, 2010

Alan Grayson says opponent wants to make divorce illegal in stinging new ad

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson -- the man who described the Republican Party's health care plan as "die quickly" and who later equated the health care system to an American holocaust, who suggested former vice president Dick Cheney was a vampire who could turn into a bat and fly away at a moment's notice, and who said putting Republicans in charge of government was akin to making members of al-Qaida pilots -- is making another series of eye-catching claims.

Grayson, an Orlando-area Democrat facing a difficult re-election fight against former Florida House speaker Daniel Webster, launched a stinging television attack Sept. 25, 2010. The title of his advertisement? "Taliban Daniel Webster."

The meat of the ad is a back-and-forth between a female narrator and Webster, speaking his own words. Here's the transcript:

Female narrator: (Speaking over images of terrorists holding guns and people burning the American flag) "Religious fanatics try to take away our freedom in Afghanistan, in Iran and right here in Central Florida."

Webster: (Black-and-white video, dressed in a suit, holding a microphone) "Wives submit yourself to your own husband."

Female narrator: "Daniel Webster wants to impose his radical fundamentalism on us." Background type: Daniel Webster wants to MAKE DIVORCE ILLEGAL.

Webster: "You should submit to me. That's in the Bible."

Female narrator: "Webster tried to deny battered women medical care and the right to divorce their abusers."

Webster: "Submit to me."

Female narrator: "He wants to force raped women to bear the child."

Webster: "Submit to me."

Female narrator: "Taliban Daniel Webster. Hands off our bodies. And our laws."

The ad is fertile ground for fact-checkers. In an earlier item, we found that Grayson used some heavy-handed editing to take Webster's words out of context. We rated a claim that "Daniel Webster thinks wives should submit to their husbands" as False.

In this item, we wanted to examine two other sweeping allegations in the ad -- that Webster wants to make divorce illegal and that he tried to deny battered women the right to divorce their abusers.

Both claims in the Grayson ad come with an attached footnote: "SOURCE: House Bill 1586 (1990)." So that's where we'll start.

The Florida Legislature maintains an excellent online bill database, but only back to 1998. For House records from 1990, we turned to the State Archives of Florida. Researchers there told us that Grayson cites the wrong bill. Webster, who was a deputy minority whip in the state House in 1990, filed another bill, HB 1585. It deals with marriage, researchers said.

But the State Archives didn't have a copy.

The Capitol Branch Library did.

Researchers there provided PolitiFact Florida with a copy of the original filed version of HB 1585. The bill, according to the House summary, "creates a form of marriage known as 'covenant marriage,' which may be dissolved only on grounds of adultery."

Florida law currently allows married couples to divorce if a court finds that the marriage is "irretrievably broken." It's a common standard throughout the country. The term can be interpreted broadly and critics say the standard of proof makes divorce too easy.

Enter Webster and his 1990 legislation creating a voluntary "covenant marriage."

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Here's what he proposed. Men and women would have the option on their application for a marriage license to elect a covenant marriage. Under terms of the covenant marriage agreement, the husband- and wife-to-be would have to have their parents' permission and attend premarital counseling by a member of the clergy or a marriage counselor before proceeding. As part of their marriage license, the husband and wife would then have to sign notarized documents declaring:

"I, (insert name), do hereby declare my intent to enter in Covenant Marriage. I do so with the full understanding that a Covenant Marriage may not be dissolved except by reason of adultery. I have attended premarital counseling in good faith and understand my responsibilities to the marriage. I promise to seek counsel in times of trouble. I believe that I have chosen my life-mate wisely and have disclosed to him or her all facts that may adversely affect his or her decision to enter in this covenant with me."

The covenant marriage agreement "may not be dissolved except by reason of adultery," according to the bill Webster filed.

"A divorce may be granted on grounds of adultery if the defendant has been guilty of adultery, but if it appears that the adultery complained of was occasioned by collusion of the parties with the intent to procure a divorce, or if it appears that both parties have been guilty of adultery, a divorce shall not be granted," HB 1585 reads.

The bill includes no mention of physical abuse.

It also discusses alimony, noting that "no alimony shall be granted to an adulterous wife," but makes no mention about the alimony rights of an adulterous man.

Democrats controlled the state House in 1990, and the bill never came up for a vote, researchers at the State Archives and the Capitol Branch Library said.

But Webster's proposal helped launch the movement for covenant marriage nationwide, said Alan J. Hawkins, a professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University and an expert on covenant marriage.

Hawkins said Webster's proposal was the "original" covenant marriage bill, though it never went anywhere in the legislative process. Three states have since adopted some form of voluntary covenant marriage, Hawkins said, but all are demonstrably different than what Webster proposed for Florida.

In 1997, Louisiana became the first state to offer covenant marriage. Under the Louisiana law, couples who select a covenant marriage can divorce 180 days after being legally separated, if either spouse has committed a felony, or for adultery.

Arizona followed in 1998 with an even broader covenant marriage law. Besides adultery and committing a crime, couples can divorce over drug or alcohol abuse, over sexual or physical abuse, and if, simply, both spouses agree to a divorce.

In Arkansas, which passed its law in 2001, couples who participate in covenant marriage can divorce for a variety of reasons -- adultery, physical or sexual abuse, or if someone in the marriage committed a felony. On top of that, married couples can divorce after a period of separation (between 12 and 30 months, depending on the case).

Webster's proposal was "significantly more restrictive and less sensitive to other 'justifiable' reasons for divorce such as abuse, addiction, imprisonment, abandonment, etc.," Hawkins said.

What has been the outcome of covenant marriages in the states where they are allowed?

We asked John W. Senner at the Health Statistics Branch of the Arkansas Department of Health. From 2002-2007, 1,358 couples have agreed to enter covenant marriage, compared to almost 218,000 who haven't. That means about .6 percent of all marriages in Arkansas are covenant marriages. (Old marriages that were converted to covenant marriage aren't tracked by the state, Senner said.)

And though the sample size is small, couples who enter into covenant marriage are less likely to divorce. From 2002-2007, 4.4 percent of couples who enter covenant marriage wound up divorced compared with 6.5 percent for those who don't.

Back to Grayson's claim.

In his ad "Taliban Dan Webster," Grayson says that Webster wants to make divorce illegal, even for abused wives.

Here are the facts.

When Webster was a member of the Florida House, he introduced a bill that would have created something called covenant marriage. This special form of marriage was entirely voluntary, but if couples agreed to it, they would not be able to divorce under state law except in the case of adultery. The bill did not list physical or sexual abuse as grounds for divorce.

Webster's bill wouldn't make all divorce illegal. It wouldn't even make divorce for all people who chose covenant marriage entirely illegal. There's a small window out for adultery. But Grayson is right that there was no protection in Webster's marriage bill for abused wives. So, in theory, someone who chose covenant marriage and was being abused might not be granted a divorce. Because all of that context is critical to understanding Grayson's claim, we rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Alan Grayson campaign, "Taliban Dan Webster," Sept. 25, 2010

Alan Grayson campaign, e-mail interview with Sam Drzymala, Sept. 27, 2010

Daniel Webster campaign, e-mail interview with Brian Graham, Sept. 27, 2010

HB 1585, 1990

Florida statutes dealing with the dissolution of marriage, accessed Sept. 28, 2010

E-mail interview with Alan J. Hawkins, Brigham Young University, Sept. 27, 2010

Interview with Deb McGriff, Capitol Branch Library, Sept. 27, 2010

E-mail interview with John W. Senner, Branch Chief Health Statistics Branch, Arkansas Department of Health, Sept. 27, 2010

National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, "Covenant Marriage: A Fact Sheet," accessed Sept. 27, 2010

Arizona Supreme Court, "Covenant Marriage in Arizona," accessed Sept. 28, 2010

"New Louisiana Covenant Marriage Law", accessed Sept. 28, 2010

Arkansas, "Covenant Marriage Act of 2001," accessed Sept. 28, 2010

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Alan Grayson says opponent wants to make divorce illegal in stinging new ad

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