It’s bad enough that South Dakota faces the possibility of sweepingly anti-LGBTQ legislation becoming law.
But Republican State Rep. Tony Randolph (below) isn’t finished imposing his religious beliefs about sexual sin onto everyone around him… and this time, his legislation stands to harm everybody, gay and straight alike.
Last week Randolph introduced HB 1158, a bill that — if made law — would remove “irreconcilable differences” from the list of permitted grounds for divorce.
That’s significant because, with those grounds removed from the legal framework, no-fault divorce would cease to exist in South Dakota.
Adultery, “extreme cruelty,” willful desertion or neglect, and substance abuse would remain grounds for divorce, but not all divorces are founded on those extremes (though it’s easy to imagine a case where someone forced to remain in an unhappy marriage might resort to adultery, neglect, or substance use, or might become abusive over time).
But even when the criteria for an at-fault divorce are met, the possibility of a no-fault divorce can offer an easier way to escape a bad situation. Many a woman has been saved the ordeal of facing her abuser in court by opting for a no-fault divorce that does not require her to submit her experiences to the legal scrutiny of her abuser and his counsel.
Make no mistake: while the law affects people of all genders, its consequences will disproportionately fall on married women, who are more likely to end up in situations of abuse and control. Blog editor Cory Allen Heidelberger, writing for his online publication Dakota Free Press, put it like this:
Citing irreconcilable differences is a lot less wearing on couples and their children than forcing them into a court battle to prove who did what wrong to whom. Under HB 1158, a controlling jerk who doesn’t want to let his wife seek a better situation apart from him can say, “You think I’m not good enough to be your husband and raise our kids? Go to court and prove it.”
The law would also amend grounds for divorce related to felony conviction in a subtle but crucial way. In the past, divorce was permitted if one spouse was convicted of a felony. Under the new law, criminal conviction would be grounds for divorce only in cases of incarceration.
Presumably this is meant to equate incarceration with desertion, but it also means that if one spouse manages to avoid doing time, the other is stuck — no matter how reprehensible they find the crime or what consequences it brings upon them.
Through this change to the legal framework for divorce, Randolph would make life more difficult for everyone of marrying age in South Dakota. But never fear, he’s got something for the young people in the form of HB 1162, a bill to make parental consent necessary for students to opt in to sex education:
Any parent or guardian who wishes to have the parent’s or guardian’s child participate in any planned instruction or presentation on sex education or sexuality at a public school shall opt-in by filing written permission with the school district board of trustees. The board of trustees shall make available the appropriate forms for such permission within two weeks preceding the instruction or presentation.
Prior to permission, a parent or guardian shall be given a brief description of the content and shall, at the parent or guardian’s option, be able to review any materials that will be used in the instruction or presentation.
In addition to adding a bunch of extra paperwork to the busy lives of both parents and teachers, the law would put children in the awkward position of having to ask permission to learn about their own bodies and identities as developing sexual subjects.
It also gives ill-informed or controlling parents the power to deny their children access to knowledge that empowers them to make better choices about sex and their bodies. Whether as a result of religious doctrines, fear-mongering about sex-ed content, or just simple discomfort with the idea of one’s own offspring growing older, it’s the children who will suffer.
On the bright side — such as it is — at least the students who don’t get to opt in won’t be missing much. While the bill calls for “medically-referenced” sex education, they focus on the abstinence-only model that has been proven ineffective and even harmful.
The bill specifies that, alongside some basic provisions for learning about anatomy and reproduction, educators must:
(1) Stress the importance and benefits of abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage;
(2) Stress the importance of fidelity after marriage for preventing certain communicable diseases and strengthen the bond between spouses [sic];
(3) Communicate that sexual abstinence is the only effective method of eliminating the risk of unplanned or out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases;
(5) Inform students of the benefits of ceasing sexual activity if a student is sexually active;
(6) Discuss the possible physical, emotional, economic, and legal consequences of sexual activity and advise students of the laws pertaining to their responsibility as parents to children born in- and out-of-wedlock;
(7) Provide information pertaining to the risks associated with sexual activity, including sexually-transmitted diseases or infections;
(13) Teach refusal skills and mechanisms to avoid sexual activity.
In other words, the students who opt in will get a crash course in sexual shame and fear-mongering that doesn’t leave them any better able to make responsible decisions about sex, whether or not it’s within marriage.
As important as what is being included is what’s being left out — namely, any useful information about how to mitigate the risks being laid out in such careful and loving detail:
Sexual abstinence programs may not include models of instruction, based on risk reduction, encouraging or promote or provide instruction on the use of contraceptives products or methods. Materials and instruction may not be excessively graphic or explicit and may not include explicit descriptions of sexual activity that encourage erotic, lewd, or obscene behavior.
What constitutes “excessively graphic” and what sort of content would encourage “erotic, lewd, or obscene behavior” is not specified, but one assumes educators — and those ensuring they follow the law — will know it when they see it.
The bill certainly gives them leeway to define it as they see fit, which leaves teachers in a precarious position, where the safest course of action is to be as vague and reticent as possible.
The language of the bill doesn’t address education about LGBTQ sexuality, but based on what we know about Tony Randolph’s record for that particular issue, we can probably make a reasonably informed guess about what to expect: total silence, perpetuating a sense of shamefulness and abnormality that has harmed countless LGBTQ kids over generations.
Once again, it’s a bill that stands to harm everybody… but some people are likely to face more harm than others.