Why Do Some Evangelicals Stand in the Way of Banning Child Marriage?

There’s a famous, though possibly falsely-attributed, quote by Mark Twain:  “I want to be in Kentucky when the end of the world comes, because they are always 20 years behind.” That quote felt uncomfortably true over the weekend, while Kentucky was at the receiving end of a lot of bad press for stalling the passage of Senate Bill 48, a bill that aims to prevent child marriage – marriage by a minor under 18 years old – in the state.

Child marriage is a real problem in the United States, one that isn’t talked about much. Like human trafficking, we assume that child marriage is something that happens in other countries, countries with antiquated world views and gender norms. But it happens here all the time – at least 9,247 minors were married in the United States in the year 2010 alone.

And this isn’t a situation of teenagers marrying other teenagers. According to Unchained at Last, a non-profit working to stop forced marriages (which includes child marriages), the majority of child marriages are between teenage (or younger) girls and adult men. Between 2000 and 2015, 86 percent of the reported 207,468 child marriages that took place in the United States were between minors and adults. Only 14 percent were between two minors. Please note that this data is incomplete – eight states did not provide data for the study.

Almost every state sets the age of consent to marry at 18 but most of them also have an exception where a younger child can marry if her parents and/or a judge agrees to it. In 25 states, there is no minimum age to marry if the conditions for an exception are met.

None of these exceptions provide enough protections for underage girls. The pregnancy exception is the most troubling. All too often, these girls are being married to their rapists because they are pregnant. It’s a sickening loophole in the law in many states; the age of consent to marry is lower (or does not exist) in several states if the girl is pregnant. So, instead of prosecuting her abuser, a victim is forced to marry him, despite the evidence that the man has, at the very least, committed statutory rape. And once married, the abuser is immune from any future statutory rape charges. To make matters worse, the teenaged bride often has to wait until she is 18 to legally get a divorce.

Obtaining judicial or parental consent is also often only a minimal hurdle to coercive child marriage. Judges appear to be quite willing to marry off teenagers to older men, particularly if they are pregnant. Parents are also not gatekeepers; often they are the ones pushing for marriage. For example, Donna Pollard, one of the activists currently pushing for a child marriage bill in Kentucky, was convinced by her mother to marry at age 16 to the 30-year-old man who was working at the mental health treatment center she went to.

All in all, the data shows that, despite romantic stories of teenagers running away together a la Romeo and Juliet, in actuality, child marriages are often the result of coercion by several adults that end in tragedy. It is a real problem that has recently been taken up by several nonprofits. For example, recent efforts by Unchained at Last and the Tahirih Justice Center have yielded positive change in the law in several states. But more work remains, and a major stumbling block, at least in Kentucky, appears to be evangelical religious groups and conservative lawmakers.

Kentucky has the third-highest rate of child marriages in the nation. Currently, Kentucky law states that, although you must typically be 18 to marry, a 16- or 17-year-old can marry with parental consent. With a judge’s consent, and if the girl is pregnant, there is no minimum age. Senate Bill 48 would change that. First, it would allow 17-year-olds to marry with the permission of a judge but only if the other spouse is fewer than four years older. In addition, a 17-year-old can obtain judicial approval only if the judge considers factors such as the maturity of the teen, any history of domestic violence by either party and whether the minor was impregnated by the putative spouse while she was under the age of consent.

The proposed amendment to existing Kentucky marriage law, SB 48, stalled in committee last week and was criticized by Republican Senator John Schickel because it takes decision-making power away from parents. But the real force behind the bill’s delayed passage comes from Family Foundation of Kentucky. Family Foundation of Kentucky is a conservative lobbying group that has created a website with links of “insights” into several bills before the Kentucky legislature. SB 48 is not one of them. And yet, the group is powerful enough that it can get a bill held up in the Judiciary Committee by simply “expressing concerns to the chairman.”

The delay in the Kentucky Senate had many worried, and for good reason. Just this week, a similar bill, also promoted by Unchained at Last, effectively died in the Tennessee legislature when House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, sent it to summer study in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, a place from where few bills return. The reason? Casada received an email from former state senator David Fowler, who is currently the president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a conservative Christian lobbying group. Fowler did not want the Tennessee child marriage bill to pass because, he believes, it would interfere with a lawsuit he intends to file regarding same-sex marriage. Whether his theory is correct (it’s an odd one), what matters here is how much power he and his conservative Christian group have over the Tennessee legislature; one email was all it took.

This link between evangelical Christianity and child marriage actually has been explored recently in the wake of stories of failed Senate candidate Roy Moore’s proclivitiesEvangelical communities still push for child marriages between girls in their “middle teens” and men in the mid-twenties or older. According to these groups, younger girls make better spouses because they are blank slates and can be more easily “molded” to serve their future husbands better. What is even more troubling in these communities is that the predominant narrative is that it is the young girl who is pursuing the older man, which means that the pregnant 15-year-old is the one who “sinned” by overcoming the resistance of the adult man who had sex with her.

Evangelicals are not the only religious group pushing for child marriage. Many orthodox religions allow or encourage child marriage and, for families in these religions, the parents are the ones pushing for marriage, either to cover up a pregnancy or to increase their standing in the community. Betsy Layman, for example, was married at age 17 to an older man as part of an arranged marriage in her Orthodox Jewish community.

Although there is no empirical data on the subject, the prominent stories of child brides (many of whom have become activists against the practice) overwhelmingly involve being pressured by their families to marry their abuser, who was often involved in their church or religious community. Michelle DeMello, 16 and pregnant, was pressured into marrying her 19-year-old boyfriend, who was also part of her Christian community. Sherry Johnson, who says she was raped repeatedly as a child by her church’s deacon and bishop, became pregnant at age 11 and was forced to marry the deacon, who was 20 years old. These are just the stories that are well-known.

Back in Kentucky, in response to the national media coverage SB 48 has received, Whitney Westerfield, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised that the bill will come for a vote in the Senate last Tuesday. The vote happened, and the bill has been sent to the House. Assuming it passes the House and the governor signs it, the bill will shortly become law.

But let’s not all breathe a sigh of relief yet. It wasn’t too long ago that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill to end teenage marriage, stating that he did so, at least in part, because of the concerns of religious groups. Will Kentucky suffer a similar fate? We can only wait and see.


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