Religious Privilege: Child Marriage
In December of 2010, the US Congress held a vote on S987, which would grant support to young girls in other countries, who were trying to escape forced, child marriages. This bill needed a 2/3 majority approval in congress to pass, which it did obtain in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, however, the bill was defeated due to a last minute push by Republicans. Of these Republicans, 157 opposed the bill, and only twelve supported it.
This opposition was led by Dan Burton of Indiana. In case you are not familiar with this particular congressman, he gained a fair amount of attention by holding at least twenty meetings during his tenure in the House, on the widely debunked claim that modern vaccines contain mercury and cause autism. In addition, he once called then President Bill Clinton a “scumbag” due to his illicit affairs. As we found out later, Representative Burton himself had an extra-marital affair of his own, resulting in a child that he kept hidden from the public. Despite all of this, he still enjoyed a 100% grade on his scorecard from the Christian Coalition. If you haven’t read my previous article, Why Evangelicals Have No Relevant Message, I encourage you to do so, as this certainly relates to that particular subject.
So, why exactly was this bill shot down? I mean, of course, we were given the typical conservative rhetoric about how we can’t afford to help anybody, but what was the real reason? Better yet, why are we the only country in the world who was a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC) who has not yet ratified it to this day? If you are not familiar with what that is, I will give you a brief summary.
In 1989, the CRC was conceived. It addressed many issues pertaining to children’s rights around the world, such as the right to healthcare; to be raised in a safe, stable environment; to not be subjected to abuse; and to not be forced into abusive and unsafe relationships or environments. If ratified, we, as a country, would be held accountable to the standards that were agreed upon during the convention. As with all treaties, it required a 2/3 majority approval in the House of Representatives and the Senate, which it did not receive. Fast forward to 2017, and out of 196 countries who were parties to this convention, America is the only country remaining that has not ratified it. How can this be? Well, that question deserves an article of its own, so I will revisit this in the future. For the context of this article, all we need to know is that we have not passed it, and that we are the only developed country in the world who hasn’t.
So, here we have two examples of our legislature failing to at least make even a statement about the inherent rights of our children. Now, you may be saying “Well, we don’t need the UN babysitting us! Our laws are sufficient enough on their own to protect our children!” Yeah… about that…
In the last couple of months, several states in America have seen a push within their constituencies to become the first state in America to completely outlaw marriage under the age of eighteen. Yeah, you read that right, the first state to make marriage under eighteen prohibited. It turns out, that out of the fifty states in the US, the vast majority do have the age set at eighteen for when you can legally marry with no one’s permission; however, every state has exceptions to this rule which allow someone to get married at a younger age. In every state, except for Texas (who recently became the first state in the union to prohibit marriage under eighteen, only allowing it for minors over sixteen who have been legally emancipated), children sixteen or seventeen-years-old, may marry if they have parental consent, and in some cases, judicial consent. Now, for a truly startling statistic: out of the fifty states, a whopping twenty-five of them HAVE NO MINIMUM AGE REQUIREMENT on record as long as there is both parental consent, as well as judicial. Furthermore, out of the twenty-five who do have a minimum age requirement, some of them, such as Massachusetts, is much younger than sixteen. In fact, Massachusetts has the minimum age with parental and judicial consent as thirteen for girls and fourteen for boys!
So, you may now be saying, “Yeah, but see, they need a judge’s consent!” Well, ok, but it is not a judge’s responsibility to write laws, now is it? No, it is their responsibility to interpret laws that are already written. Now, if there is no age on record, then there is no law, so what kind of judgment can be made? What is there to interpret? It turns out, it would be completely legal for the parent of an eleven-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated by a twenty-year-old, to take her to a judge, and for the judge to say, “Well, marriage in this case is better than a child being born out of wedlock,” and issue the marriage license, binding this young girl to her adult rapist in holy matrimony. Think that sounds far-fetched? Think again…
The situation I described above is exactly what happened to a woman from Florida, named Sherry Johnson. When she was eleven, a twenty-year-old man from her family’s church raped her and impregnated her. Naturally, Child Welfare Services were getting involved, so her parents and church officials decided that, rather than have a messy criminal case on their hands, the best thing to do would be to have her marry her rapist!
So, these “parents” of hers drove her to a nearby county and when the judge looked things over, he said, “No way! I would absolutely never approve such an atrocity! You said this man was twenty? That’s statutory rape! I want that man behind bars, and furthermore, I am calling Child Protective Services to intervene on this poor girl’s behalf!” Oh wait, sorry, I was daydreaming. That’s what should have happened; what did happen is that the judge approved the marriage on the grounds that it was better for her to be married to this guy than to have a child born out of wedlock. Makes sense, right? I mean, dude just raped an eleven-year-old; I’m sure he will be an all-star dad, right?
Make no mistake, Mrs. Johnson is not the only woman to have endured this horror. Research this subject, and you will find several more testimonies very similar to this; and these are just the ones who had the courage to actually talk about what they went through. How many more do you think there are who are too humiliated and traumatized to even talk about it?
According to Unchained at Last, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving legislation to protect children from forced marriage, reports that from the years 2000 to 2010, as many as 167,000 children under eighteen were married in thirty-eight states (meaning there were almost certainly more), most of them being young girls, nearly always married to adult men.
Now, 167,000 children may be a small percentage of children in this country, but think about the damage it caused to these people. These are lives that were irrevocably changed for the worse. Even one child is too many if you truly value their worth as a human being. Think, for a moment, about your adolescence. Maybe you think back to going to ballgames with your dad; going to dinner with your mom; learning to drive; playing on the football team; playing in the marching band; maybe you were a cheerleader; if you were lucky, you were going on dates (maybe you even found your first love); maybe you were a little mischievous, smoking pot with your buddies or sneaking some beer to a party; but no matter if you were a saint or not, for many of us, these are life experiences that we would never take back; but for these girls, those memories were of raising children and being continually raped by their husband!
For many of these children, there is no way out until they are eighteen. I mean, they have no legal rights, no power of attorney; therefore, can’t file for divorce or take custody of their children from an abusive husband; hell, they can’t even vote for someone who may try to pass legislation to end this nightmare for them!
Take Massachusetts for example, where there is no minimum age requirement for marriage with parental and judicial consent, and reportedly, over 1200 children were married between the years 2000 to 2014, nearly all girls, 84% of whom were married to adult men, and some were as young as fourteen. By state law, they can’t go to an adult shelter to get away from the situation, because they are underage. They also don’t qualify for aid from the Department of Children and Families, because they are married! So, where are they supposed to go when the relationship, by its very nature, becomes abusive? To their parents? Not probable, since they are the ones who approved of the situation, to begin with! There is a bill in the Massachusetts State Legislature right now that would prohibit marriage for children under eighteen. If you live in Massachusetts, call up your state Congressmen!
I mentioned earlier that there had been a recent push in several states to improve legislation on this issue. We’ll take a look at a few of them to see how things went. Oh, and spoiler alert! Except for Texas, none of them have banned child marriage under eighteen!
Let’s take a look at New Jersey, where reportedly around 3500 children were married between 1995 and 2012; 163 of which were fifteen or younger, and the majority were young girls married to adult men in arranged, religious marriages.
In New Jersey, a bill passed both the State Senate and House of Representatives that would essentially outlaw child marriage. Governor Chris Christie, however, conditionally vetoed the bill, only wanting to raise it to sixteen instead of prohibiting it, saying “An exclusion without exceptions, would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions.” He also stated that “It is disingenuous to hold that a sixteen-year-old may never consent to marriage, although New Jersey law permits the very same sixteen-year-old to consent to sex or obtain an abortion without so much as parental knowledge, much less consent.”
Governor Christie actually brings up a good point about the age of consent, but this, to me, is insufficient logic to veto this bill. In fact, it seems to me that if he is against the age of consent being sixteen, which he seems to be, then it would be more effective to sign the bill into law, and then push to raise the age of consent to eighteen to match it. Am I crazy or does that make more sense? So, either he is being irrational, and allowing more child marriages to take place just to spite the people who wanted the age of consent to be sixteen instead of eighteen, or he is only rationalizing keeping this legal as to not piss off his religious voter base. I would say either is possible.
Now, let’s look at New Hampshire, where reportedly 323 girls and forty-six boys under eighteen were married between 1995 and 2012, including fourteen girls who were under sixteen, but no boys under sixteen. Look at that last statistic again in case you thought I was exaggerating when I said that most of the girls under sixteen were marrying adult men; they aren’t marrying boys their own age, at least in New Hampshire, it seems. It should also be noted that one of these cases in New Hampshire, was of a marriage in 2006 in which a seventeen-year-old girl was allowed to marry a forty-year-old man.
So, in New Hampshire last month, a young lady of seventeen, Cassandra Levesque, pushed for the state legislature to bring the minimum age for marriage up to eighteen, up from thirteen for girls and fourteen for boys with parental and judicial consent. This was ultimately rejected by the state legislature, with State Congressman David Bates leading the opposition, saying “We’re asking the legislature to repeal a law that’s been on the books for over a century, that’s been working without difficulty, on the basis of a request from a minor doing a girl scout project.” What a pompous, arrogant statement. Where do I even begin with this? I guess we can start with how callous it was to dismiss this girl as he did for having the courage to try to take part in her government! Also, note that he degraded her, because she was a minor! Seriously? So, he thinks she’s old enough to get married, but not old enough to be taken seriously by a state-representative? As far as his statement about the law not needing to be changed because it has been “on the books for over a century,” all I can really say is that I’m glad that the Northerners didn’t have that philosophy about slavery; or lawmakers in 1920 about women being able to vote!
As far as his statement that the law was “working without difficulty,” I need only point back to the statistics I have given, and the testimonies of Sherry Johnson and others who have endured the same situation. Yeah, I know Mrs. Johnson is from Florida, but New Jersey has similar laws to those which allowed her to be in that situation.
In addition to State Representative Bates’ ridiculous statement, he also proposed a very common argument used to defend the laws remaining as they are, when we agreed that thirteen was too young to be married, but went on to say that it “may be appropriate for pregnancy.” Well, who is getting these girls pregnant! Look at those stats again! It’s not fifteen-year-old-boys now is it? It is usually, as with most of child marriage cases across the country, adult men! That is statutory rape! What this person is proposing is that legal pedophilia is preferable to having a child born out of wedlock! Like I alluded to before, it’s bad enough that we are chaining a little girl to her adult rapist, but what about the baby? What kind of father is this person going to be? Where does this kind of warped logic come from? I’ll give you a hint, it starts with a G, ends with a D, and it’s not Gerald.
Finally, let’s see what is happening in California. Yes, California, what many may consider to be the liberal mecca of the country, has no minimum age on record for marriage, and the most recent attempt to correct that was weakened by a push from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California. Yeah, the ACLU of California, of all people, came out against this legislation, with Kevin Baker, the Legislative Director of the ACLU of California, saying that they were concerned about forced marriage, “but we wanted to make sure that we weren’t also sweeping involuntary marriage.” Ok, if we consider sixteen-year-olds as having the decision-making ability to decide to get married, why is the age of consent in California eighteen? Chris Christie may have been wrong and irrational, but at least he was consistent.
There is a reason why California had sense enough to have the age of consent at eighteen, and considering sex between a minor and an adult as statutory rape, whether the minor consents or not. Sixteen-year-olds are simply not ready to make these kinds of life-changing decisions wisely. Science has virtually proven that the brain develops dramatically between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, especially in the areas that deal with decision making, and being able to predict consequences of those decisions! If there was such a thing as “super italics,” I would have just used them on that last statement. California, and many other states, to be fair, do not let sixteen-year-olds vote, drink, smoke, have sex with adults, etc, so why would we allow them to make a far more consequential and potentially dangerous decision of binding themselves to a life’s partner? Forget voluntary in this case! It is ok to say that we do not have confidence in a sixteen year old's decision-making ability to allow them to get married!
The statistics speak for themselves. Two-thirds of marriages where at least one participant is a child, end in divorce. In addition, the negative effects of these arrangements, including higher school drop-out rates; higher poverty rates; higher rates of depression; higher rates of abuse and rape, therefore trauma. Why is this allowed to continue? Well, there are several reasons that we have went over in this article, but what is the number one reason? Religious freedom. Yes, in this country you do have the freedom to believe what you want, but your actions are another matter. You can believe all day long that gay people should be put to death, but you cannot act on it. You can also believe that thirteen-year-olds can get married, but what you cannot do, is deprive anyone, even a child, of their most basic human rights, reinforced by the Constitution: The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which are taken away in most, and arguably all of these cases. Any time your liberties come at the expense of someone else’s, that is not freedom, that is privilege.
If you are as outraged as I am about this issue, my advice is, make people aware of the problem. In addition, contact your state legislators and support these organizations that are fighting to end this atrocity. Most people don’t know the extent of this problem in our country, but now, you do, and if we do nothing, it may as well be us signing these children’s marriage certificates, and in many cases, their lives along with it.