Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in August and has been updated.
The national news this week has been dominated by accusations against U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore — both the allegations that he sexually assaulted at least two teenage girls and also that he attempted to date teenagers while he was in his 30s.
Moore denies the allegations. But the stories have prompted discussion about a certain “courting” practice in pockets of the fundamentalist Christian community to which Moore belongs: Older men ask out young women, including teenagers, with their parent’s permission and with an eye toward marriage.
All of which raises the question: Isn’t child marriage — when one of the partners is under 18 — illegal in the U.S.?
Child marriage isn’t just a practice that victimizes girls in poor countries. As this blog has previously reported, it’s also long been an issue in the United States, involving girls from a wide range of backgrounds. Based on state marriage license data and other sources, advocacy groups and experts estimate that between 2000 and 2015 alone, well over 200,000 children — nearly all of them girls — were married. In nearly all cases the husband was an adult.
The center, a nonprofit advocacy group that works to end violence against women and girls, did a comprehensive analysis of the myriad statutes governing marriage in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Among the findings:
Twenty-five states do not set a minimum age at which a person can get married, and eight more set it at an age lower than 16. Alaska and North Carolina, for example, set the age at 14. In New Hampshire it’s 13 for girls, 14 for boys.
In all of these states, minors who are below a certain age — it varies from state to state — must still get a judge’s approval to marry.
But the report finds that this is hardly a robust protection against the exploitation of children. For instance, most states do not specify that the ruling judge must work in a court system that gives them expertise in such matters — say family, juvenile or domestic relations court. Similarly, very few states require that the child be appointed his or her own counsel. Only two state laws specify that a judge cannot approve a marriage solely because the child’s parents have consented. And nine states expressly permit pregnancy as a reason to lower the minimum marriage age.
All of this is problematic because it makes it hard to ensure that a girl isn’t being pressured into marriage by her own family or an adult partner who, but for the marriage, would be subject to prosecution for statutory rape. What’s more, even in states that do officially set the age of marriage at 16 or higher, judges are generally allowed to overrule the limit and let a child marriage go forward.
The Tahirih Justice Center hopes that the report will spur lawmakers to make changes to their state’s statutes. So far, progress has been slower than advocates would like. But interest in the issue is growing and over the last two years Virginia, Texas and New York have all passed legislation that the report celebrated as putting in place “meaningful safeguards.” Before in New York, marriage was formally allowed for children as young as 14, with a judge’s permission. Now, the “age floor” is set at 17, and even then, approval is required by a judge who must determine that the minor is not being coerced, among other criteria. And the minor is appointed an attorney with training on domestic violence and forced marriage.