A bill now moving through the New Hampshire House of Representatives (HB 378) proposes to make it illegal in the state for children under age 18 to marry, with or without their parents’ permission.
Many Americans might not know that children can still be legally married in the U.S., but it’s actually quite widespread — and the legalizing reason is often, if not always, religious preference of the parents. The public-accountability nonprofit e-zine Watchdog reported in 2018:
“Child marriage — when a minor under age 18 is married — is legal in 49 U.S. states, accounting for judicial exceptions, In 25 states, no statutory absolute minimum age for marriage exists. To clarify, this means that minors can legally marry another minor or an adult in at least 25 states. As of May 2018, Delaware is the only state that prohibits child marriage with no exceptions. The vast majority of minors being married are girls and, human rights activists argue, many against their will.”
A 2015 New York Times story reported that “only 10 states or jurisdictions have specific laws that can be used to prevent or punish forced marriage.” The article went on to say that:
“Parents give many reasons for forcing their children into marriage, including controlling the children’s sexuality and behavior and protecting ‘family honor.’ Often families use forced marriage to enhance their status or gain economic security.”
Embedded in this post is the disturbing, U.S. government-funded 1938 film, Child Bride, which, although barely soft-core by today’s standards, was infamous when it came out because although it promised to be a figurative fire-and-brimstone sermon against child marriage it was clearly a vehicle for pedophile titillation. This 2012 review describes it as “gutter cinema from yesteryear,” and ironically, despite the film’s crass dishonesty, darkly illustrates how morally fraught the issue still is.
Most nations set 18 as low marriage age
The Times report noted that, globally, 88 percent of countries prescribe 18 as the minimum marriage age, but more than half allow minor girls to marry with “parental consent.”
A statement by the top Islamic-law expert in Saudi Arabia, the Grand Mufti — “the closest thing modern Islam has to a pope” — reveals how religion can influence child-marriage customs. Saudi law is basically Islam’s holy Qur’an codified. TheHumanist.com article quoted the Grand Mufti as contending:
“It is incorrect to say that it’s not permitted to marry off girls who are fifteen and younger. A girl aged ten or twelve can be married. Those who think she’s too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her.”
Jewish halakhah dogma allows marriage as young as 13 for boys and 12 for girls. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, codified 18 as the minimum marriage age but also allows for judicially approved exceptions. A 2013 article in the Jerusalem Post reported that:
“Each year 4,500 children below the age of 18 marry in Israel, two-thirds Muslim, one third Jewish.”
Many faiths sanction child marriage
It’s not just Jews and Muslims. Catholic canon law permits marriage as young as 16 for boys, and 14 for girls. A child brides are reportedly common, even exalted, among Mormons. Conservative Christian parents also commonly coerce their children into early marriage to avoid their engaging in “sexual immorality.” If you want a sense of the evangelical Christian attitude on young marriage, check out my Jan. 15 post, “This website gives me the willies. It’s like a Christian Stepford Wives.”
New Hampshire’s HB 378 would, like the Delaware marriage statute, outlaw all child marriages with no exceptions, by raising the now-legal minimum age of 16 to 18 and stripping language from the current law that authorizes religious and other exceptions.
Such a no-exceptions statute is necessary, according to The American Humanist Association, because under-age exemptions are widely granted in the U.S. A 2015 article in its TheHumanist.com e-zine — “Rules are for Schmucks: Religion and Child Marriage” — reported:
“But if you think that child marriage is only an issue in backwards lands, far away, you are mistaken. According to a report of the Centers for Disease Control, four percent of American women and one percent of men who married in the 2006-2010 period were under age eighteen. If you want depressing statistics on all the scarring for life this causes, there are plenty to be found in the National Institutes of Health reports with titles like Child Marriage in the United States and Its Association With Mental Health in Women.”
207,468 minors wedA 2017 article in Teen Vogue reported that between 2000 and 2015 at least 207,468 minors married in the U.S., according to figures from PBS’s Frontline. Although religion isn’t always the primary determinant in child marriage, the advocacy organization Unchained At Last has suggested that the practice is “pervasive across faiths.”
The Times reported that a National Marriage Survey conducted in 2011 by the Tahirih organization recorded responses from child brides from Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, and other faiths:
“It identified child marriages or forced marriages, or both, in immigrant communities from 56 countries of origin in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, but it also identified such marriage in so-called American families.”
New Jersey a child-marriage hotbed
Data from New Jersey appears particularly egregious. The Times article reported:
“… data show that 3,481 children were married in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012. Most were age 16 or 17 and married with parental consent, but 163 were between ages 13 and 15, meaning a judge approved their marriages. Shockingly, 91 percent of the children were married to adults, often at ages or with age differences that could have triggered statutory-rape charges, not a marriage license.”
New Jersey Gov . Chris Christie in 2017 vetoed a bill that would have make child marriage illegal in the state, in part, according to Teen Vogue, “because he said he believed it would violate religious customs.”
“I agree that protecting the well-being, dignity, and freedom of minors is vital, but the severe bar this bill creates is not necessary to address the concerns voiced by the bill’s proponents and does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this State,” Gov. Christie said at the time.
Currently in New Jersey, therefore, the law allows minors to marry with parental consent at 16, “and anyone younger can marry with consent of both parents and a judge’s approval.”
This shows how religion is often seamlessly allowed to pervert the purpose of secular laws.
New York also has problems
A study in New York found, in 2011 alone, “a 14-year-old married to a 26-year-old, a 15-year-old wed to a 25-year-old, and a 15-year-old married to someone “age 35 to 39.”
“All of those marriages were approved by New York judges. A track record like that indicates that their power to make exceptions ought to be taken away. Judges, far too often, are politicians all too willing to cave in to religious pressure. The situation cries out for a simple rule, with no exceptions, ever.”
Let’s hope New Hampshire takes the high road with HB 378, and disallows religion from continuing to corrupt reason in its marriage law.
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