HELENA - Because of the devastating effects of divorce on children and families, the state of Montana should not allow couples with minor children to get divorced until they've undergone at least 10 hours of marriage counseling, supporters of a bill imposing that requirement told a legislative committee Monday.

"I've had a 50-year-old man telling me he still wished that his (divorced) parents would get back together," said Sharon Nason, a licensed professional counselor. "This bill would slow down the rush to divorce court when the struggles of marriage become overwhelming."

Nason and other supporters of HB438 told the House Judiciary Committee that counseling can save some marriages, and that couples having problems often don't stop to explore the nature of their problem, which could be solvable, or the harsh effects a separation will have on their children.

HB438, sponsored by House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, says a couple with minor children cannot get a divorce unless they've undergone at least 10 hours of marriage counseling in the prior 12 months.

The bill says the requirement doesn't apply if either party makes a claim of physical abuse.

"This 40-year-old experiment with wide-open, one-sided, no-fault divorce has had a devastating effect on families and especially children," said Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation.

Opponents of HB438 said it's an unnecessary "government mandate" and barrier to divorce, especially for poor people who can't afford such counseling or who might be trying to get out of an abusive marriage.

They said while the bill allows an exemption for someone claiming "physical abuse," there might be other types of abuse they're trying to escape.

Ed Higgins of Montana Legal Services, which provides civil legal services to poor people, said many who come to Legal Services are simply "seeking recognition

of something that has already happened: The end of their marriage."

"Those living at or below poverty simply cannot afford to pay for counseling," he said. "For someone who is not a lawyer, this adds more confusion to the legal procedure."

Patricia Lawson, her voice breaking with emotion, said a woman trapped in an abusive marriage often has trouble coming up with the money for a divorce.

"If legislators want an unfunded mandate for counseling, who's going to be liable for the woman's safety?" she said. "If you must insist on counseling, premarital counseling would be the answer. Before you get married is when you should be getting the counseling."

Human rights and women's groups also testified against the measure.

Many of those in favor were from churches or church groups, saying that lay counseling could help people and that marriages are better saved than ended.

Janet Tatz of Helena, who opposed the bill, said she was struck by the "blatantly religious tone" of the pro-HB438 testimony. While all people are entitled to their personal religious beliefs, those beliefs shouldn't be incorporated into law, she said.

McGillvray said he's open to tweaking the language to allow people in abusive marriages to avoid the counseling requirement, but rejected arguments that his bill is an "unfunded mandate" by government, since marriage counseling often can be obtained from low-cost or no-cost sources.

"It's an opportunity to save a marriage and save children," he said. "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."

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.