Why Conservatives Objected to that Kentucky Child Marriage Bill

Why Conservatives Objected to that Kentucky Child Marriage Bill March 5, 2018

We heard, last week, that a bill to end child marriage had stalled in Kentucky, due to a conservative group lobbying in favor of the practice. “Kentucky’s ‘child bride’ bill stalls as groups fight to let 13-year-olds wed,” one news source declared. “Kentucky Republicans kill bill to limit child marriage because parents should have right to marry off kids,” another outlet reported.

As USA Today explained:

A bill to make 18 the legal age for marriage in Kentucky has stalled in a Senate committee amid concerns about the rights of parents to allow children to wed at a younger age, according to several lawmakers.

Known as the “child bride” bill, Senate Bill 48 was pulled off the agenda just hours before a scheduled vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee for the second time in two weeks.

On Thursday, Sen. Julie Raque Adams, who sponsored the bill, identified the Family Foundation of Kentucky as the organization opposing the bill. We’ll come back to the Family Foundation—and their motivations—in a moment. Before we do that, I want to provide some background on Kentucky’s current law, and on what SB 48 would do.

Kentucky has the third highest child marriage rate in the country. During committee hearings, Donna Pollard of Louisville testified that, at age 16, her mother pressured her into marrying an older man who had been molesting her for two years. After their wedding, her new husband quickly became violent and abusive. Eileen Recktenwald of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs referred to the current law as “legalized rape of children.”

Here is a summary of the current law and how it would change:

Currently, teens under 18 in Kentucky can marry at age 16 or 17 with a parent’s permission. Teens under 16 can marry with a  judge’s permission in case of a pregnancy, though critics say if a girl under 16 is pregnant, it is evidence of a sex crime because she would have been too young to consent to a sexual relationship.

The bill would establish 18 as the legal age for marriage. Those who are 17 could marry with permission of a district judge, if the age difference between the 17-year-old and the other party is fewer than four years.

Insider Louisville offers more:

Asked Thursday morning who was lobbying against her bill, Adams told Insider Louisville that it was the Family Foundation of Kentucky — one of the more prominent groups in Frankfort advocating for socially conservative causes — who argued that it “diminishes parental rights.”

Adams added that she and other legislators are now working on a compromise bill that she hopes will satisfy the concerns of opponents, but added that the problem is that “many times the parents are the problem,” as abusive ones sometimes send their own kids “into the arms of a predator.”

Here’s where it gets interesting: As we shall see, the sticking point for the Family Foundation of Kentucky was that the bill would allow 17-year-olds to marry, but would remove the parental consent requirement for these individuals, instead requiring 17-year-olds who wish to marry to petition the court in a process that would, if successful, emancipate them. Removing parental consent from the process, the Family Foundation argued, would be a violation of parental rights.

Under Adams’ bill, a 17-year-old who wished to marry would need to present evidence of maturity, proof of stable housing, and proof of a high school diploma or GED. The judge would then need to determine that the minor wishes to marry of their own free will, that they are mature enough to do so, and that the marriage will not disadvantage them. If the judge were to grant the 17-year-old’s petition, the minor would be emancipated, as is explained in the bill:

The granting of a petition for permission to marry filed under subsection (3) of this section shall have the effect of granting a petition to remove the disabilities of minority. A minor emancipated by the petition shall be considered to have all the rights and responsibilities of an adult, except for specific constitutional or statutory age requirements, including but not limited to voting, the use of alcoholic beverages, and other health and safety regulations relevant to him or her because of his or her age.

It makes sense that, should we allow 17-year-olds to marry at all, the process should involve emancipation. After all, a minor who is emancipated is now legally an adult, with the rights and privileges that go along with that. This means that a 17-year-old who marries, under Adams’ bill, would become an adult first, ensuring that their decision is as unencumbered as possible.

With that out of the way, let’s scrutinize the Family Foundation’s reasons for objecting. Martin Cothran, a spokesmen for Family Foundation of Kentucky, explained the group’s objections to the bill as follows on Thursday:

Cothran said his group was not opposed to the bill setting the minimum age for marriage at 17, but added that they are opposed to the court approval process for 17-year-olds, as “it takes away parental rights, in terms of parental consent, and gives it to the court. So we have a big concern about that.”

“The approach of this bill is the opposite of what we would advocate,” said Cothran. “It takes away parental rights at the very beginning, and then includes them in a sort of incidental way at the end of the process. We pushed for changes in the language to allow for parental rights at the beginning and take them away where they need to be taken away.”

Cothran said their concerns could be “easily resolved” in a compromise bill.

I checked the bill and couldn’t find the “incidental” inclusion of parental rights “at the end of the process” that Cothran refers to here. He must mean a section specifying that “the wishes of the parent” are not “sufficient evidence to establish that the best interests of the minor would be served by granting the petition for marriage.” It’s worth clarifying that the legislation as it stood last week did not include parental consent anywhere in the process for a 17-year-old who wished to marry.

Under current law, a 17-year-old must have to have parental consent to marry. Under Adams’ bill, a 17-year-old would not have to have parental consent to marry. Instead, they could marry without parental consent.

The Family Foundation, Cothran said, was not fighting to lower the minimum age of marriage allowed in the bill. Instead, the group’s concern centered solely on the process by which the bill would allow 17-year-olds to marry. Even here, Cochran did not suggest that parental consent and parental consent alone should be required, as under current law. Instead, he suggested that the bill should “allow for parental rights at the beginning” and then “take them away where they need to be taken away.”

What would this look like? It could mean simply adding that a 17-year-old wishing to marry would need to submit, along with everything else, a statement of consent signed by a parent or guardian. Or, it could look like completely rewriting the process to minimize the role of the judge and maximize the role of the parent in deciding whether a child is ready to marry.

Either way, the Family Foundation feels it was mischaracterized:

After a news story about … the bill produced backlash Thursday for The Family Foundation and legislators, the organization responded on Twitter.

“@KentuckyFamily does NOT oppose min. marriage age, AND, is FOR parental rights — these are NOT mutually exclusive. Contrary statements by others of our position are grievously misinformed or intentionally distorted,” the Friday tweet said.

It’s not just Cochran and the Family Foundation of Kentucky who feel the situation has been misrepresented. As the Kentucky New Era reports:

In a text message to the New Era, [Sen. Whitney Westerfield], chair of the Judiciary Committee, said both The Family Foundation and proponents of the bill support establishing a minimum age for marriage; however, the delay  came while the committee sought to find a compromise that accomplished the goal of establishing a minimum age while protecting the role of the parent.

“There is NO GROUP, including The Family Foundation, asking to protect the ability to marry 13-year-olds,” Westerfield’s text message said.

He tweeted Sunday that he believes he’s found a compromise that would give parents a voice, but “still require the court to make the final call to protect from an abusive parent.”

A Tuesday morning committee meeting to discuss the bill was scheduled and he plans to call for a vote this week.

“The bill was never not going to be heard,” he said in a text message.

Two components of initial reporting on the bill—that a conservative organization was pushing to allow 13-year-olds to marry, and that they had killed Adams’ bill—turned out to be false. This misinformation is unhelpful, because it gets in the way of our ability to delve into what was actually going on, and to examine the motivations actually in play.

Westerfield suggests that the Family Foundation of Kentucky has approved a compromise that would still give the court the right to make the final decision regarding whether a 17-year-old could marry. I very much hope that this is the case, because statements made by several lawmakers last week suggest some discontent with involving judges at all:

The provision involving a judge appears to have bothered some lawmakers, including Sen. John Schickel, a Boone County Republican.

“I had some problems with the bill,” he said Thursday. “Decisions involving a minor child should be made by a parent, not the court.”

Sen. Wil Schroder, a Wilder Republican and a co-sponsor of SB 48, said he thinks the bill is fine as it is.

“I know there are some concerns, but it’s 2018 and it’s definitely a problem,” he said.

Still, Schroder said he doesn’t object to judges not deciding in cases of underage marriages.

“Unfortunately, parents make bad decisions sometimes and sometimes judges make bad decisions.”

An easy solution to this question—whether marrying at age 17 should consider parental consent or permission from a judge or some combination of the two—would be to bar all marriage under age 18.

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