I don’t know if you heard about this, but there there was kind of a conservative resurgence in the last election. Normally, Montana is resistant to such broad national trends—see also: real estate collapse, Trader Joe’s, prohibition against sweatpants in public—and in this case, the notion of the median political position moving to the right seemed almost statistically impossible. Those of us living in Missoula tend to forget, but Montana is one of the redder states in the union, as a quick trip down (and, abruptly, further down) any public roadway will indicate. Yet, like Frankenstein slowing down as he gets older, the Montana legislature has managed to become even more conservative. The other week, we talked about their plan to adopt the most restrictive voter registration requirements in the country. On Friday, they’ll vote on repealing the so-called Missoula Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination in housing and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, and on adopting a law that would ban similar nondiscrimination ordinances across the state. Somewhere in that busy agenda of protecting freedom by outlawing various actions, they’ve also found time for House Bill 438, a law that would require couples to complete ten hours of marriage counseling before they can get divorced.
“It’s an opportunity to save a marriage and save children,” said House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R–Billings. “Most marriages that are failing are not due to abuse; they are due to issues that could be fixed, through a little bit of help and a little bit of counseling.” Ah, yes—issues like you don’t love each other but you have a kid, which is a perfect opportunity for the government to step in and provide a happy childhood by requiring you to work things out.
The caveat that most failing marriage are not “due to abuse”—mental and syntactical sic, McGillvray—refers to the exception granted in the bill to divorces for reasons of physical abuse. Under HB 438, an abused woman with a minor child who wanted a divorce wouldn’t have to seek counseling; all she’d have to do is prove that she had been abused, either by taking dated pictures of the bruises and other injuries that cover her body and submitting them to the court, or by making a domestic violence call to the police and saving the relevant reports as evidence. It’s as simple as that!
The abuse codicil is pretty convenient, since it provides opponents of the bill* with a hint toward ready counterarguments. For example, it only provides for physical abuse. Under the proposed law, my wife ** and I could greet each other every morning with “thanks for ruining my life, you loathsome harridan,” and then spend the rest of the day communicating solely through passive-aggressive Facebook statuses, but as long as nobody hits nobody, we can’t get divorced until we clear our relationship with the same organization that runs the DMV.
Of course, it is rarely easy to make a bright-line distinction between passionate fighting and emotional/psychological abuse, which is maybe why we shouldn’t make laws about who can decide they don’t love each other. The absurd hypocrisy of a man whose campaign slogan was “Less Government. More Freedom for Montana” sponsoring such a bill is difficult to process, unless you consider the following possibility: to Tom McGillvray, “freedom” is not a denotative word. It is a sort of brand name, and the product it represents is that odd mix of biblical and Chamber of Commerce platforms that one species of conservatism has conflated with individual liberty. Capital-F Freedom is guns, low taxes and laws that keep people from getting divorced or passing city nondiscrimination ordinances. Little-f freedom, like the general policy of letting individuals determine the course of individual lives rather than putting their decisions to a vote—whether among two spouses and a counselor or 970,000 Montanans—can go pound sand.
That’s one possible explanation. The other is that Tom McGillvray is a person to whom ideological coherence and the accepted definitions of words have no meaning at all. Consider this bold statement of purpose from the Issues page of his website: “Observation has revealed to me that the most underrepresented person in the state legislature is the typical Montana citizen who works hard each day for their employer or themselves.” Now there is the declaration of an honest man.