Expert says Alabama is lagging in raising its marriage age

Mobile Register, Mar. 30, 2003
http://www.al.com/
By KAREN TOLKKINEN, Staff Reporter

Of all the House of Prayer brides, April Nichols best remembers the two sisters. One was age 14, the other 15, and they were surrounded by family, all dressed in their Sunday best.

“They seemed like little girls getting married,” said Nichols, Cleburne County Probate Court’s chief clerk. “They didn’t seem upset. They giggled a little bit. There wasn’t any crying or anything. They think it’s funny and cute, and they’re going to be grown up because they’re getting married.”

The House of Prayer church in Atlanta, embattled over its use of corporal punishment on children, was sending young girls to Alabama’s border county east of Anniston to take advantage of this state’s more lenient marriage laws.

Its pastor, Arthur Allen Jr., told reporters that he wanted to prevent girls from having premarital sex.

Georgia requires brides and grooms to be at least 16, unless the bride is pregnant, in which case all age requirements are waived. But in Alabama, girls and boys can marry at age 14 as long as their parents agree.

Alabama has been trying to raise the marriage age since at least 1997. In 2001, then-Rep. John Hilliard, D-Birmingham, introduced a measure to raise the age to 16, calling it a direct response to House of Prayer activities. It received widespread support but died because a filibuster on another issue shut down the Legislature.

This year, another bill was introduced by Alabama Sen. Charles Steele Jr., D-Tuscaloosa. He said he carried it at the request of the state’s probate judges, who were seeing too many young couples.

“I still think that’s too young, but it’s better than 14,” Steele said.

Why not raise it to 18?

“Hopefully we’ll get to that, but we have to start somewhere,” he said.

Alabama is one of just three states where 14-year-olds can marry with just parental consent. Some other states allow marriage at that age — or even younger — if the girls are pregnant, or if a judge agrees.

Such policies are holdovers from a time when boys were considered men once they could do a man’s job, and a girl was considered a woman once she could bear children. Alabama’s law was written in 1852.

“Back then, they had a lot more responsibilities,” Steele said. “They didn’t continue their education. It was all about survival. They had children and worked. Times were different. Reasons for getting married were different back then.”

Young marriages worldwide have come under fire over the past few years. In 2001, the United Nations Children’s Fund declared marriages under age 18 to be a violation of human rights, contending that minors are not mature enough to give a “free and full” consent.

That same year, the Centers for Disease Control found that couples under age 18 had a 10-year divorce rate nearly twice as high as when the couple was 25 years old or older.

Reports of very young brides pushed lawmakers into raising the marriage age in at least one state: South Carolina. North Carolina and Utah followed suit.

“For both girls and boys, early marriage has profound physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional impacts, cutting off educational opportunity and chances of personal growth,” the United Nations Children’s Fund said in a 2001 report titled “Early Marriage: Child Spouses.”

For years in South Carolina, it was legal for 12-year-old girls to marry. Then lawmakers heard that a tight-knit, closed community called the Irish Travelers was actually marrying girls off at that age. In 1997, they raised the age for girls to 14 and the age for boys to 16.

In 2000, then-South Carolina state Rep. Michael Easterday was looking at South Carolina’s new law and realized that setting different ages for males and females probably violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection provision.

“I just read it one day and said, ‘Wait a minute, how can we treat them so differently?'”

Lawmakers then boosted the age for girls to 16 as well. But even that isn’t entirely satisfying to Easterday, who now works in the governor’s office.

“I’m not sure if 16 is old enough, really, for the same reasons,” he said. “I was a junior in high school at 16. I was not equipped financially or emotionally to make that kind of commitment.”

South Carolina wasn’t the only state allowing children to marry at age 12. It was legal in North Carolina, which increased the age to 14 two years ago. In Kansas, in the absence of legislative action, the state Supreme Court set the legal marriage age at 12 for girls and 14 for boys. New Hampshire still allows girls to marry at 13 and boys to marry at 14, though it also allows parents or guardians of married minors to petition for annulment.

And, legal or not, 12-year-olds have gotten married in Alabama.

Kathy Albritton of Mobile got married at age 12 in Covington County in 1972 to 17-year-old Tony Wayne Heathco. Covington County confirmed the marriage date but said her age was listed at 16. Albritton said she was never asked for proof of her age. She showed the Mobile Register a Florida birth certificate and Alabama driver’s license to support her account.

Her mother, now deceased, was a drunk and hardly ever at home, Albritton said. She and her brother and sister had to take care of themselves. One day, her future husband saw her mother mistreat Albritton, whose last name was then Metz. He asked her mother if he might marry her, and her mother agreed. Albritton was more than happy to comply.

“I was so tired of the situation I was in at home that it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse,” she said.

They had two children and divorced in 1987.

Now Metz, realizing for the first time that you can’t legally marry in Alabama until you’re 14, has a question: Was she ever legally married?

Penny Davis, a University of Alabama law professor who teaches family law, was guarded about the early years of Metz’s marriage, but said that once she turned 18, the relationship would have become a legally recognized common law marriage.

Pregnancy was — and still is — a common reason for early marriage for social and religious reasons, though observers say there’s not as much pressure to do so these days.

Nina Kynard, business manager for the nonprofit Child Welfare and Policy Group in Montgomery, said her pregnancy at age 15 in 1967 shamed her family. Of all the options, including packing her off to an aunt’s house in another city, marriage seemed to be the best at the time.

“It was a stigma, and it was embarrassing,” she said.

The marriage lasted just 18 months. Luckily, she had supportive parents who insisted she be allowed to stay in school, so she graduated on time, she said. Other pregnant teenagers were pressured into dropping out.

“Now it’s different. You can stay in school, and I think that’s a good thing,” Kynard said. “Things have progressed quite a bit since that time.”

Alabama is behind the curve in trying to raise its marriage age, said David Popenoe, one of the directors of the National Marriage Project, based at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

In 1959, half of all brides were teenagers. Today, the average bride is 25 years old, he said.

“Everything has shifted up, and that means that early marriages and teen marriages are way outside the normal range,” he said.

The country is increasingly aware of the problems teenagers face in early marriages and that early marriage is probably the greatest predictor of divorce, Popenoe said. Also, the concept of marriage has changed to become much more of a close friendship than it once was.

“It used to be — this is a bit of a stereotype — two people going through life together doing their own thing,” he said.

“You each had your jobs to do. You didn’t have time to think about the emotional quality of the marriage. Today that quality is everything, and if it’s not strong, you get divorced. … With a 50 percent divorce rate, you think maybe it’s a good idea for people to wait until they’re more settled as personalities.”

America’s paradox is that even as children have to wait longer for “adult” things — serving in the military, drinking, getting married — they’re perceived as growing up faster than previous generations. Children are exposed to sex, drugs and violence at increasingly early ages. They’re reaching puberty earlier. So why is America making them wait longer for adult responsibilities?

Because society has become increasingly complex, and people need more time to prepare for it, Popenoe contends.

“We do think it takes a longer time to grow up these days, and it does, partly because we need a fund of knowledge through education that we didn’t used to need,” he said.

As for the House of Prayer, many of its children were taken into custody by child protective workers. Most of those children have been returned to their parents, but a judge forbade church leaders from circumventing state law by bringing young girls to states more open to young marriage.

Last year, the pastor and four other House of Prayer members were convicted of child abuse in connection with beatings of children at church.

Ted Hall, an attorney for the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services in Atlanta, said the order only applies to those children taken into custody by his agency. It does not stop the church from marrying off other young girls, and he said the practice is still occurring from time to time. He just doesn’t know where.

One child bride who later testified against the church said she went “screaming and crying all the way to Alabama,” Hall said.

Other church brides consented willingly, he said.

“That is, if at 14 you can knowingly consent,” he said.

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