Protecting Marriage Between One Adult & One Child
Republican state Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder says she’s running for Missouri lieutenant governor to “better the lives of Missourians by unabashedly protecting sacred Christian and conservative values.” She has supported strict restrictions on abortion, touts an A+ rating from the NRA, fought against COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and sponsored a bill to create “Rush Limbaugh Day” in honor of the late talk radio host. Her conservative credentials are impeccable.
Thompson Rehder has also joined a bipartisan effort to ban child marriage. She and Democratic state Sen. Lauren Arthur are pushing legislation to increase the minimum age for marriage in the Show-Me State. Currently, 16 and 17-year-olds can marry someone under 21 without parental consent. The new legislation would prohibit marriage for anyone under 18. (Missouri didn’t raise the minimum age to 16 until 2018, and before that it was a popular wedding destination for 15-year-old brides — which isn’t exactly the wedding niche you want to crow about to Bridal Guide.)
During a Senate hearing last week, Thompson Rehder spoke about her own experience of getting married at 15 to her 21-year-old boyfriend. She hopes to prevent others from making the same mistake.
“It was only until much later that I realized at 15 years old you really don’t have the mental capacity to make those types of decisions,” added Thompson Rehder, who is now divorced from her husband. “I know that it is something that you really shouldn’t be doing before you’re an adult.”
In addition to the two lawmakers, five people testified in support of the effort to raise the minimum age for marriage, including another woman who got married as a minor — to make sure her boyfriend didn’t face “religious excommunication” — and then found herself in an abusive marriage for years. Advocates for children and survivors of domestic and sexual violence also testified for the legislation to ban marriage for minors.
Then one person walked to the microphone to testify against the bill: a Southern Baptist minister.
“We certainly have empathy for those who have experienced negative consequences to marry at such an early age,” said Rev. Timothy Faber, director of missions for the Ozarks Baptist Association. “However, I can see a few rare circumstances where that might be appropriate.”
Faber has during recent legislative sessions served as a lobbyist for the Missouri Baptist Convention (but wasn’t representing them at this hearing) and recently chaired the MBC’s Christian Life Commission. Last year, Democratic lawmakers called for Faber’s removal as chair of the Missouri Commission on Human Rights after he testified on behalf of the MBC against a bill that would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. As the MBC’s representative, he was also the only person last year to testify against a bill to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to one year.
So Faber’s no stranger to public policy issues or the lawmakers he spoke to during the hearing. But the senators — including conservative Republicans — seemed confused by his opposition to the legislation. And he seemed to struggle to justify his position. But he’s not an isolated wedding legislation crasher.
As states across the country consider bills to limit or ban marriage for minors, opposition is popping up in several places as conservative Christian ministers and activists speak against the legislation. So the honor of your presence in reading this issue of A Public Witness is requested on Feb. 6, 2024, as we vow to analyze the Christian support for child marriage (no RSVP is required and the only thing on our gift registry is paid subscriptions).
Missouri is not standing alone at the altar. Marriage laws are regulated at the state level, leaving little room for federal government intervention. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly stated the “regulation of domestic relations” is “an area that has long been regarded as a virtually exclusive province of the States.”
Only 10 states currently ban nuptials by those under the age of 18. This can leave minors, who might be caught in difficult family circumstances or abusive relationships, coerced into a legal arrangement they may not choose or lack the capacity to comprehend. The result is thousands of children entering into legal unions each year, with a disproportionate number being young girls married to adult men.
“Most Americans agree that forced marriage and child marriage are terrible and heartbreaking,” Fraidy Reiss, founder of the advocacy group Unchained At Last, told The 19th. “They imagine this happening on the other side of the world, and I wish there was something we could do to show them it’s happening here too, largely because we have outdated, archaic, and dangerous laws that need to be updated.”
Progress on updating those laws has proven halting. Tennessee currently prohibits those 17 and under from being married, but in 2022 GOP legislators advanced a new bill that would have undone those protections. It only died after growing awareness of its details sparked a public backlash.
In Wyoming, the state’s Republican Party Central Committee organized its members against GOP lawmakers trying to raise the marriage age. An email alert directed readers to claims that such a step would violate the rights and responsibilities of parents and connected the possibility of entering into marriage with the ability to conceive a child. Lawmakers ignored these objections in passing the law, which prohibits marriage by those under 18 (with exceptions for those 16-17 that require parental approval and judicial consent).
Some states, like North Carolina, enacted measures in recent years that moved their legal age for marriage higher, but political pressures forced compromises that still left it short of 18. California, one of the few remaining states with no age floor, has found difficulty passing legislation because of opposition from progressive groups rooted in concerns over constitutional and reproductive rights.
“California has no minimum age of marriage, even though the minimum age of consent for unmarried persons is 18; depending on the age gap, statutory rape can be treated as either a misdemeanor or a felony,” Valerie Hudson, a scholar at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, explained in The Atlantic. “This means that in California, you can have sex with your husband at age 12 (if a parent and a court sanction the marriage), but you can’t have sex with your boyfriend until 18. And, yes, you have to be 18 to seek a divorce in California.”
State of the Opposition
As lawmakers across the country have started trying to limit child marriage, opposition has popped up among pockets of conservative Christians beyond Missouri.
Last week, a South Dakota House committee voted 8-5 against a bill that would’ve raised the minimum age for marriage from 16 to 18. Helping lead the opposition to the bill was Norman Woods, executive director of Family Voice. His group describes itself as seeking a state where “God is honored,” “religious freedom flourishes,” “families thrive,” and “life is cherished.” But he opposed the bill since it would allow sex without marriage for teenagers.
“Right now, the age of consent here in South Dakota is 16,” Woods told lawmakers. “If you raise the marriage age to 18, you as a state would be saying, ‘You can hook up, but you can’t get married.’”
So while the group is currently pushing legislation to ban books in the name of preventing minors from being exposed to pornography and laws to prevent medical treatments for transgender minors, they opposed a bill to prevent minors from getting married.
When the Wyoming Republican Party last year announced its opposition to a child marriage bill, it did so with a message linking to a blog post on a state politics site run by a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod pastor. The arguments emphasized that God and parents should get to decide if children are ready to enter “into the estate of Holy Matrimony.”
“Parents, by virtue of their right to conceive children, have the pre-political (i.e. God-given) responsibility to raise their own children,” the post by Capitol Watch for Wyoming Families argued. “For minors to whom God has given a child, states should allow for the best interest of that child. Since there can be no hard and fast rule to balance the best interest of the child and the best interest of the adolescent, states should not preempt the parent’s responsibility to take the prudent path.”
“[The bill] denies the fundamental purpose of marriage,” the post added. “Since young men and women may be physically capable of begetting and bearing children prior to the age of 16, marriage must remain open to them for the sake of those children.”
Conservative “family” advocacy groups in other states have similarly argued against bills prohibiting marriage for minors, often stressing similar arguments. For instance, a leader for The Family Foundation — that says it “preserves and promotes the family in Virginia as God’s foundation upon which all free and thriving societies are built” — told Virginia lawmakers, “Many of us have grandparents where it was common to get married at 16 or 17. And many of them are still married today.” And a leader at the Louisiana Family Forum — that calls itself the “voice for traditional values” — explained their opposition to the legislation: “We just wanted to make sure that the value of marriage as a cherished institution was supported.”
Like the group in South Dakota, both the Virginia and Louisiana organizations are official state partners of the Family Research Council (a Republican activist group that claims it’s a church in IRS filings). Founded by James Dobson of Focus on the Family as an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., the FRC insists its mission is to “serve in the kingdom of God by championing faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a biblical worldview.”
When it comes to child marriage, there’s too much support from those who are quite vocal about “defending” marriage. The policy question is an important issue on its own, but these examples demonstrate the need for more robust conversations among Christians on the purpose of marriage itself.
Flourishing in Relationship
Both the conservative and progressive objections to child marriage laws emphasize control and procreation. For the former, it’s about parents (or an adult partner/spouse) maintaining control over the child, especially when that child becomes pregnant. For the latter, it’s about ensuring autonomy for the child when it comes to both relationships and parenthood.
In explaining their stance against the legislation, the ACLU of Northern California stated, “We believe that some youth can appropriately make this decision for themselves.”
There’s good reason to think this isn’t the case. Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe, a professor of psychology at Calvin University (a school in Michigan affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church) told us that “most developmental psychologists discourage early marriage.”
“Developmentalists are concerned about early marriage in general (and particularly child marriage!) for many reasons,” she explained. “A foremost concern is that young marriages may be coerced.”
“Early marriage prompted by pregnancy often conscripts the family to a life of poverty,” she added. “Early marriage also increases the risk of factors that are often (but not always) associated with poverty, including substance abuse and domestic violence. Although some conservative voters may be of the attitude that the young couple must ‘take responsibility’ for their actions, even conservative voters should be able to recognize the danger and moral/theological wrong of putting babies at risk.”
Similarly, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, a professor of religion, psychology, and culture at Vanderbilt University and an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), told us “the risks lie on several levels” when it comes to marriage for minors.
“Neurologically, human brains are not fully developed until well into the mid-20s, meaning that youths under the age of 18 lack the adult capacity to discern and weigh the full consequences of their actions,” she explained.
“There are also social and spiritual/theological risks,” she added. “Those under 18 are still experimenting, and they should be free of some of the more serious expectations and responsibilities assumed by adults. Marriage is a huge life commitment.”
The decision to marry is about far more than entering a legal agreement or providing structure for raising children. Even while recognizing the value of marriage to procreation, Augustine noted its power for connecting humans with each other and with their God. (Though, he also thought celibacy was the highest ideal, so as married men we reference him with qualification.) This points to the mutuality and reciprocity necessary for relationships to be life-giving, which seems impossible for a child or young teenager to offer an adult.
Opponents of laws seeking to prohibit marriage before the age of 18 reduce people to providers and procreators. They miss the way intimate, lifelong relationships should help people flourish as God intends. Such possibilities only exist when people enter into marriage freely, having the psychological capacity to truly say “yes” to a relationship and without the coercive pressures of family or religion forcing them into a commitment they do not want to make.
The words of 1 Corinthians 13 are so familiar that many of us tune them out when we hear them read at a wedding. Yet, if love really “does not dishonor others” and “is not self-seeking,” then Christians should take seriously the testimony of those who found themselves forced into child marriages and both the psychological and spiritual trauma that can result.
“I was told I was ruining God’s will for my life and ruining my [ex-husband’s] destiny with God as well,” Mandy Havlik told the Los Angeles Times in describing her forced marriage at age 17 into an abusive relationship to a leader in her family’s church. She added that she ended up being “saved by people outside of the church. I’m just so grateful for my community and to get out of that situation.”
It’s sadly necessary for the state to keep asunder what some Christians wish to join together.
As a public witness,
Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood