Kentucky’s laws around child marriage would be tightened significantly under a new bill proposed by state Senator Julie Raque Adams, a Republican from Louisville.
Under the bill, Kentucky minors would have to wait until they turn 18 to get married, except under certain circumstances when 17-year-olds could petition a judge for permission. No one under the age of 17 would be allowed to wed.
Kentucky’s current statute allows children aged 16 and 17 to marry with parental consent. Children younger than that can get married if the girl is pregnant. There is no lower age limit.
An August investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found that 11,000 minors were married in Kentucky over the last 17 years. Some were as young as 13.
Studies show that minors who get married tend to end up with less education and higher rates of poverty, and are more vulnerable to domestic violence. A 2012 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found teen brides are two-thirds more likely to get divorced within 15 years than those who marry later.
“This is a critical and long overdue overhaul of Kentucky’s minimum marriage age laws, which haven’t been amended for 20 years,” said Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, a group that advocates against child marriage. “Safeguards are urgently needed to prevent abuse and exploitation in the guise of marriage.”
Adams’ bill would require a 17-year-old who wants to get married to also meet the requirements for legal emancipation. This means they would have to prove that they are self-sufficient, with a source of income and place to live, and have obtained their high school diploma or GED.
Judges would have to deny the request if the age difference between the couple is more than four years, or if one party is in a position of authority over the other, like a teacher, employer or pastor.
Marriage would also be prohibited if one party has been convicted of a crime against a minor, or if they have had a domestic violence protection order taken out against them.
And while Kentucky law currently views pregnancy as a factor in granting child marriage, this bill would require judges to take into account whether that pregnancy was conceived as a result of statutory rape.
Donna Pollard runs the non-profit Survivor’s Corner and helped write the bill. When Pollard was 16, her mother consented for her to marry a 30-year-old who had been her counselor at a youth behavioral facility.
“Had this bill been in place, the courts would have identified the fact that my perpetrator was in a position of authority over me,” she said. “He would have had statutory rape charges filed against him and not been granted a license to continue exploiting me.”
Nationally, Child Marriage Laws Vary
Kentucky is one of 25 states that has no minimum age requirement for marriage. But nationally, it’s an issue that is gaining attention.
This summer, the New York legislature passed a bill that raised the minimum age of marriage to 17 with parental and judicial consent. In October, Connecticut prohibited marriage for children younger than 16.
In Texas, 16- and 17-year-olds who want to marry must also qualify for emancipation.
But California’s recent effort to prohibit youth marriage ran into opposition, including from the American Civil Liberties Union, which felt the bill unfairly infringed on a juvenile’s right to wed. In May, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would raise that state’s minimum age of marriage, citing religious freedom.
That’s an argument that could emerge in Kentucky, too. Cindy Marlow of the Christian, conservative group American Family Association of Kentucky, spoke with KyCIR in August. She said government should have no role in this matter.
“You should be able to raise your child in your beliefs and how you feel it is important to raise them,” Marlow said.
The bill is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.