SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Chile, one of the few nations in the world where "until death do you part" is still the law, is finally moving toward legalizing divorce. Ironically, the proposed rules may make it harder than ever to end marriages.
Chile's Senate voted recently to consider a divorce bill already approved by the lower house of Congress.
But the measure -- still subject to debate and unlikely to go into effect until next year at the earliest -- closes a loophole that thousands of Chileans use every year to dissolve their marriages in this socially conservative country.
And under pressure from the influential Roman Catholic Church, which argues that divorce will harm families and children, lawmakers have decided to include in the proposal requirements that couples seek counseling and wait three to five years after separating to apply for a divorce.
"The truth is the new law is a step backward. The church couldn't win the war, so it got all these things added to the bill to make divorce more difficult," said lawyer Cesar Pinochet Elorza, who for 30 years has handled marriage-ending cases known as nullities.
Currently if a married Chilean couple agrees to split up, they can go to court and say their marriage should be voided because they were married in the wrong registry office. That is one that was outside the jurisdiction in which they lived.
The judge then decrees the marriage null and void.
The so-called nullity is based on an agreement by all parties -- the couple, lawyers, witnesses and the judge -- to lie about the registry office. The maneuver is common. Cabinet ministers, senators and even President Ricardo Lagos have done it.
"It's not a procedure a judge can be happy with. It's not real. The witnesses lie and we the judges act dumb. But I can't say I don't like it because it's the only way people can remake their lives if they want to remarry," said Judge Sonnia Navarro of Santiago's first civil court.
Other judges refuse to hear such cases on religious grounds.
Navarro said she welcomes the bill legalizing divorce because the current procedure costs between $400 and $1,500 -- more than most Chileans can afford.
She said nullities cannot be done without a lawyer and that free or low-cost lawyers for poor people refuse to help because of pressure from the church.
Chile may be deeply conservative, yet opinion polls regularly show that some 70 percent of Chileans want divorce to be legal. Chile, the Philippines and Malta are among the few countries in the world without legal divorce. Another holdout, staunchly Catholic Ireland, legalized it in the mid-1990s.
The church is considered the main block to previous attempts to get divorce bills through Chile's Congress during the 1990s.
In July, when the Senate started looking at the current bill, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, archbishop of Santiago, spoke out against it.
"What should not be done is to opt for solutions that imply the destruction of the notion of marriage itself. Many countries have done just that. Their experience already shows that introducing divorce is not the right road," the cardinal said in a recent letter.
He has proposed that the bill give Catholics the option to choose a mode of marriage that would not allow a legal divorce.
Top church officials did an intense round of lobbying in July with cabinet ministers and senators to try to get their proposed article into the law but without immediate success.
The government firmly backs the divorce proposal, and opposition parties also mostly support it. Even so, it is moving slowly through Congress with lawmakers taking the church's opposition into account.
"There is not a division between the government or opposition on this .... However, since it is such a sensitive issue we must listen to all opinions ... and among those the Catholic Church is very important because it is an important institution in the country," presidential advisor Francisco Huenchumilla told reporters recently.
Navarro said respect for the church's opinion is holding things up. "They should legislate without fear. This hypocrisy must end," the judge said.