Effort to bar child marriage in California runs into opposition
A Bay Area legislator was shocked when he learned from a young constituent that while Californians cannot legally consent to sex until they are 18, they can — with the permission of a parent and a judge’s order — get married at any age, even if their spouse is many years older.
“I thought, that can’t be true in California,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat from San Mateo. “We found that it is true in California and true in many states throughout the country.”
But Hill’s resulting proposal to bar juveniles from getting hitched has been watered down after it prompted strong objections from civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
As the emotional fight unfolds in Sacramento, there’s no agreement even about a basic piece of information — how many minors get married each year in California. People who want to limit such marriages say the total is in the thousands, while those who oppose the bill say that’s vastly inflated.
The state doesn’t keep such numbers, and even efforts to change that are running into resistance.
Within the past year, elected officials in several states have pushed to restrict juvenile marriage, with a law passed last month limiting matrimony by minors in New York to 16- and 17-year-olds who have become legal adults emancipated from their parents, and one in Texas holding the line at age 17 — with a judge’s permission.
Hill wanted California to set a strict line at age 18, but the effort encountered swift opposition from fellow legislators, as well as groups that include the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.
While SB273 is still alive and moving through legislative committees, amendments have removed any age restriction. The measure in its current form increases family court oversight to ensure that a minor’s marriage isn’t coerced, including a requirement that judges interview individuals privately.
It’s a compromise, Hill said, but still a positive step. “It’s our responsibility to protect those kids,” he said.
Among those disappointed by the result of the compromise is Sara Tasneem of El Sobrante, who said the amended bill won’t help children and will only make elected officials feel like they did something.
Tasneem was 15 when her father, who belonged to a cult in Southern California, introduced her to a man 13 years her senior. She was forced to marry the 28-year-old in a religious ceremony that evening. Six months later, at 16, she was pregnant and legally married in a civil ceremony in Reno.
“A person who marries a 15-year-old, there’s obviously something wrong,” said Tasneem, now 36. “Putting that label of husband and wife makes something disgusting and not OK seem normal and OK.”
As a teenager, Tasneem dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Instead, she became a mother, with two children by age 19. She would ultimately defy her husband and return to school, and later file for divorce.
“Once you leave your childhood, there’s no going back to it,” said Tasneem, now a business student at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “All those opportunities and freedom of being a child are gone.”
Activists aiming to stop such marriages say they occur across demographic groups, spurred by religious reasons, cultural norms, pregnancy, financial incentives or, in some cases, to protect someone from statutory-rape accusations because marriage circumvents the age-of-consent requirement.
Nationally, about 5 of every 1,000 children ages 15 to 17 were married as of 2014, according to U.S. census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center — figures that don’t specify where the marriages occurred. Activists for age restrictions estimate that California sees about 3,000 marriages per year that include a minor.
The ACLU and other opponents say that estimate is inflated, noting that just 44 petitions for juvenile marriage were filed in Los Angeles County — which has a population just above 10 million — over the past five years.
The focus of efforts should be on abusive and coerced relationships, regardless of marital status, said Phyllida Burlingame of the ACLU’s Northern California chapter.
Referring to current regulations, including the requirement of a court order allowing a juvenile to marry, she said California had “a strong package of both programs and laws that prevent coerced marriage among youth, and a lack of data showing this is a widespread problem.” Hill’s original proposal, she said, “was a solution that wasn’t necessarily going to have the impact on improving young people's health and relationships that we want.”
Other opponents said marriage is a fundamental right, and that some juveniles not only marry willingly but benefit from the choice.
“Any legislation to eliminate this core right,” said the National Center for Youth Law in a statement opposing Hill’s initial legislation, “must be based on concrete data and information that demonstrates this drastic step is the most effective and appropriate strategy to address the harms being alleged, and that there are not other less extreme options available.”
An early amendment to the bill required the state to collect data on juvenile nuptials, but it was eliminated in committee because of cost concerns. Hill said he is trying to restore that requirement.
Those who backed the initial bill haven’t given up trying to persuade lawmakers to pivot and reconsider an age limit like Texas and New York.
“Initially it was a nice, simple, bright line — either you’re 18 or not. Like a tanning bed or voting, you can’t get a waiver from your parents,” said Sarah Bradshaw of the Feminist Majority, which promotes equality for women. “We’re hoping that people in the Assembly will put teeth back in it.”
The debate has energized people like Nicole, a 29-year-old resident of Stanislaus County who at age 16 married a 24-year-old man with the blessing of a judge.
Nicole, who requested her last name be withheld for safety reasons, said she had been dating the man but was still in high school — and wasn’t ready to settle down. But her grandmother, who was raising her, was extremely religious and pushed the two to get married.
With her guardian sanctioning what became an abusive relationship, Nicole said she felt helpless.
“My grandparents were willing to ignore every bruise,” she said. As for her husband, “I think that for him he thought it was a way to protect himself from statutory-rape charges.”
Her husband was killed two years later in a car accident, when she was pregnant with their first child.
“I was widowed at 18,” she said. “When most kids were applying for college, I was applying for death benefits.”
Nicole, who now studies computer science at a community college, said a law limiting marriage to 18 and older might have impacted her life profoundly.
“I had no control; I had no say,” she said. “I can't believe how much I’ve missed while I’ve tried to cope with life as a child bride.”
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