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Kentucky Senate pulls bill to outlaw child marriage following opposition by conservative group

"A child is a child."

(Photo: Pixabay)
(Photo: Pixabay)

Senate Republicans in the state legislature pulled a bill to outlaw child marriage in Kentucky, Insider Louisville reported this week, following opposition from the conservative group Family Foundation of Kentucky on claims that it takes away parental rights.

Introduced by State Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R) to the State Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Bill 48 would set the minimum age of marriage to 17 years old, and establish a process for 17-year-olds to marry with a court approval.

The bill would require a statement from the minor indicating why the individual desires to marry; evidence for the minor’s “maturity and capacity for self-sufficiency” independent of that person’s parents; copies of any domestic violence order or interpersonal protective order involving either party to be married; and ensure that the court retrieves any records from the National Sex Offender Public Website relating to the intended spouse of the minor, among other proposals.

The bill would also grant authority to a judge to deny the petition if the age difference between the two people is more than four years; if the intended spouse has a history of domestic violence; if the intended spouse was previously in a diversion program for criminal offenses; and if the minor’s pregnancy was a result of a sexual offense.

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The bill was pulled hours before a scheduled vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee “for the second time in two weeks,” USA Today reported.

Current state law allows 18-year-olds to be married without parental consent, while 16- and 17-year-olds must have parental consent. But teenagers under the age of 16 can also be issued a license if they are pregnant and have a “District Court Judge issue a court order directing the Clerk to do so,” the law states. Kentucky has the third highest number of child marriages in the country — behind Texas and Florida — with 11,657 minors married between 2000 and 2010.

Eileen Recktenwald, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, was disappointed by the move.

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“This is legalized rape of children,” Recktenwald said. “We cannot allow that to continue in Kentucky, and I cannot believe we are even debating this is the year 2018 in the United States.”

Donna Pollard, an advocate of raising the legal age of marriage in Kentucky who testified in support of the bill, was married at 16 and pregnant by 17. She was trapped in a relationship with an older man who became violent and abusive after they married in 2000. Pollard said her mother — who herself got married at 13– encouraged her to marry the man. Pollard, who is now divorced, said, “I felt just completely and totally trapped.”

Among the 11,000-plus marriages involving at least one minor between 2000 and 2015, the age variance between the two parties has been extreme. In one case, a 13-year-old girl married a 33-year-old man, and in another, a 15-year-old girl married a 52-year-old man, Pollard said, citing a forthcoming University of Louisville Kent School of Social Work study.

State Sen. John Schickel (R) had issues with the bill, stating, “Decisions involving a minor child should be made by a parent, not the court.”

Adams, the bill’s original sponsor, told Insider Louisville that the conservative Family Foundation of Kentucky argued the bill “diminishes parental rights.”  Adams is now working on a compromise bill.

As Insider Louisville reported, Family Foundation spokesman Martin Cothran told the publication “we haven’t done much lobbying at all against this bill,” but the organization did express its concerns to the committee chairman and “asked for a week to work this out.” Cothran added that the group was not against raising the minimum age of marriage, but said it did not support the court approval process because “it takes away parental rights, in terms of parental consent, and gives it to the court. So we have a big concern about that.”

A compromise bill may include parental consent “on the front end,” and a judge’s ability to have the final say, said Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sen. Whitney Westerfield on Saturday via Twitter. Westerfield supports SB48 as filed.

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Child marriages and early marriages are more likely to experiences challenges, with minors having to end formal educations prematurely, earning lower wages, and living in poverty, according to a 2012 College of William and Mary report.

“A large and growing body of research identifies social costs associated with early marriage, while there is little evidence of offsetting benefits,” the research report noted. “For individuals to benefit from marriage, moreover, their marriages must remain intact. Early marriages, however, are unlikely to do so.”

Meanwhile, the United States has not taken kindly to child marriages in other countries. In response to a Iraqi parliament proposal that would allow child marriages, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said, “[O]ften we don’t comment on other country’s legislation. But we are completely against and oppose the idea of children marrying adults. And let’s remember, it was not that long ago that we called out the depravity of ISIS for taking child prisoners, child brides, and the sort. Some of this will be an internal Iraqi matter, but we remain firmly opposed to the idea that any adult would attempt to marry a child in that fashion. A child is a child.”