SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) Chile legalized divorce on Friday despite strong opposition from the Catholic Church, which warned the move would be harmful to families.
President Ricardo Lagos on Friday signed the bill making divorce legal, although it won't take effect for six months to give judges time to study the changes and to enable courts to be set up to hear cases.
''This is an important day for Chile and its families,'' Lagos said during a crowded signing ceremony at the presidential palace.
The chair reserved at the ceremony for Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz remained empty, reflecting the Catholic Church's displeasure.
''This is a sad day for the church and the whole Catholic community,'' a church spokes-person, the Rev. Pedro Fernandez, said. ''It hurts us, because this law damages the family.''
Lagos made an indirect reference to the church's opposition to the law: ''We cannot impose the positions of one sector of our society on all Chileans,'' he said.
About 87 percent of Chileans consider themselves Catholic. Congress approved the legislation in March following a nine-year debate.
Chile was one of the last countries in the Western Hemisphere without a divorce law, forcing couples with failing marriages to resort to subterfuge to end marriages.
One common measure was for one of the partners to declare before a court that their marriage was illegal because their spouse reported a false address at the time of the marriage.
The costs for such legal measures average $670 steep in a country where the minimum wage is about $180 a month.
The new law allows couples to get a divorce only after having been separated for at least one year, if both spouses agree. If only one party agrees, the waiting time is three years.
The new law, replacing century-old legislation, also requires couples seeking a divorce to undergo counseling for at least 60 days.
Sponsors of the legislation initially objected to the waiting periods, but they dropped their opposition in return for votes from reluctant right-wing legislators.
A judge can approve a divorce without a waiting period if one member of the couple proves there have been violations of marital duties by a partner, like violence, homosexuality, prostitution, drug addiction or a criminal conviction.
''A great majority of our citizens felt that this change was needed,'' Lagos said.
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