Under current Kentucky law, 16- and 17-year-old minors can get married with their parents’ consent. Children younger than that who get pregnant can also marry with a judge’s permission. The average age of a girl’s first period is 12, meaning girls that young, and possibly younger, can legally wed in a state where conservative Christian “family values” barred LGBTQ people from wedding until the US Supreme Court forced marriage equality upon the nation in 2015.
Critics of the law as it stands argue it promotes child sexual abuse, as underage marriages usually involve teenage girls marrying older men, often due to pregnancy, in a culture in which having a baby out of wedlock is widely considered a “sin” against “God.”
“This is legalized rape of children,” Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, said in a statement. “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.”
Kentucky state lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle want to bring Kentucky’s marriage law into the 21st century. To that end, state Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) introduced Senate Bill 48, known as the “child bride bill,” which would prohibit anyone younger than 17 from marrying and would only allow 17-year-olds to marry with a judge’s permission. The measure was scheduled for a Thursday vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but conservative Christian lawmakers moved to at least temporarily block the measure by postponing the vote.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Whitney Westerfield (R-Hopkinsville) told Insider Louisville the vote was delayed to address concerns by lawmakers “and others” wary of what he called “replacing parents with government.”
Adams said The Family Foundation of Kentucky, an influential conservative nonprofit dedicated to preserving “the integrity of the traditional family,” is leading opposing SB 48. Family Foundation spokesman Martin Cothran told Insider Louisville that his group hadn’t “done much lobbying” against SB 48, and that its opposition to the bill is being misrepresented. Cothran said he isn’t against raising the minimum marriage age to 17. It’s the court approval process for 17-year-olds who want to marry that worries him, as he believes “it takes away parental rights, in terms of parental consent, and gives it to the court.”
“It is disgusting that lobbying organizations would embrace kids marrying adults,” Adams tweeted. “We see evidence of parents who are addicted, abusive, neglectful pushing their children into predatory arms. Appalling.”
Donna Pollard, who at age 16 married a man in his early 30s, said her ex-husband preyed upon a vulnerable child.
“It did not take long for the abuse and exploitation by the man I now refer to as my perpetrator to begin,” she told The Nation. “I tried to leave more than once, but because I had not yet reached the age of 18… apartment complexes would not rent to me because I could not enter into a contract. I was trapped.”
After Texas and Florida, Kentucky has the nation’s highest child marriage rate. According to the Tahirih Justice Center, a Virginia-based charity that protects immigrant women and girls from gender-based violence and persecution, more than 10,000 children married in the state in the years 2000-2015.
Kentucky isn’t alone in legally allowing children to marry. Around half of the 50 states allow children — sometimes with no minimum age — to marry with the consent of parents, a judge or both.