Rules Are for Schmucks: Religion and Child Marriage

A New York Times op-ed piece last week shined some light into the one of the darkest corners of our society: the practice of forcing children into marriage. United Nations data indicate that some 37,000 girls under eighteen get married every day somewhere around the world. But if you think that child marriage is only an issue in backwards lands, far away, you are mistaken. According to a report of the Centers for Disease Control, four percent of American women and one percent of men who married in the 2006-2010 period were under age eighteen. If you want depressing statistics on all the scarring for life this causes, there are plenty to be found in the National Institutes of Health reports with titles like Child Marriage in the United States and Its Association With Mental Health in Women.

What the Times article carefully avoids doing is blaming religion for any of this. Perhaps the author doesn’t want to be branded as a religion-baiter or (worse yet) Islamophobic. Since I don’t care about that, let me fill in what she skipped.

Islam is the biggest, though not the only, driving force behind child marriage. The Qur’an, which is supposed to be the word of God, explicitly permits marriage shortly after the onset of menstruation. The current Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the closest thing modern Islam has to a pope, is equally clear: “It is incorrect to say that it’s not permitted to marry off girls who are fifteen and younger. A girl aged ten or twelve can be married. Those who think she’s too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her.”

When you look at the list of countries where marriage under age eighteen is most common, you find at the top countries that are heavily Islamic, like Niger, Chad, Guinea, and Bangladesh. Thousands of Saudi Arabian girls have been married off before their thirteenth birthdays to men at least twenty-five years older. In heavily Muslim northern Nigeria, where nearly half of all girls are married by age fifteen, the rise of Boko Haram has made the pressure for child marriage even more intense. Even in relatively westernized Turkey, thirty-nine percent of all married women in one province studied were under seventeen on their wedding day.

Islam may be the biggest religious source of child marriage, but not the only one. Jewish halakhah sets the minimum age for marriage at thirteen for boys and twelve for girls. A 2013 article in the Jerusalem Post points out that “Each year 4,500 children below the age of eighteen marry in Israel, two thirds Muslim, one third Jewish.” To its credit, the Israeli Knesset recently changed the law to set an eighteen-year-old minimum marriage age, but allowing exceptions with judicial approval. Who opposed this change? The ultra-Orthodox God experts, making the same tiresome religious privilege arguments we get in America on everything from contraceptives in healthcare plans to county clerks needing to do their jobs. Who will be besieging the Israeli courts with demands for exceptions? You only get one guess.

Conservative Christians also push their children into marriage, in order to prevent them from engaging in “sexual immorality.” Catholic canon law permits marriage at sixteen for boys, and fourteen for girls.

Not all underage marriages are forced by adults. Not all of them are related to religion. Some of them simply involve teenagers, sometimes referred to as “idiots,” who are certain they’ve met the perfect life-mate. If they truly have, then waiting to marry until eighteen won’t hurt them. But if they haven’t, then taking an action intended to be permanent most definitely will. Whether an under-age marriage is coerced by religious parents or sought by hormone-crazed teenagers, it’s a bad idea.

The law draws arbitrary lines all the time: speed limits, tax rates, building codes, etc. We can all agree that a one-year-old should not be able to marry or make other binding decisions; a thirty-year-old should be able to do so. Reasonable people can quibble about whether eighteen is the best possible place to draw the line for marriage, as the vast majority of countries do, but it isn’t terrible. Eighteen is also used for other purposes, like voting, and entering into binding contracts. So a seventeen-year-old isn’t thought competent to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee in the voting booth, whether or not his or her parents consent, but in most places can get married with their consent. A seventeen-year old cannot enter into a permanently binding contract to buy a motorcycle, with or without parental consent, but can enter into a “forever” marriage.

The minimum marriage age in most American states is eighteen, but every state allows exceptions, with the most common being “parental consent.” But as the Times article points out, “one person’s ‘parental consent’ can be another’s ‘parental coercion,’ but state laws typically do not call for anyone to investigate whether a child is marrying willingly.” A 2011 survey by the Tahirih Justice Center found 3,000 known or suspected cases in the previous two years alone of girls in the US as young as fifteen who were forced to marry under threats of death, beatings or ostracism. The whole notion of parental consent to marriage treats children as though they are objects belonging to their parents, to be disposed of as the parents wish.

Another common exception is for underage marriage with “judicial approval.” How well does this work? A study in New Jersey found cases of judges approving the marriage of a ten-year-old boy to an eighteen-year-old woman, and of a twelve-year-old girl to a twenty-five-year-old man. In New York State, in 2011 alone, a fourteen-year-old married a twenty-six-year-old, a fifteen-year-old was wed to a twenty-eight-year-old, another fifteen-year-old was wed to a twenty-five-year-old, and a fifteen-year-old married someone age “thirty-five to thirty-nine.” All of those marriages were approved by New York judges. A track record like that indicates that their power to make exceptions ought to be taken away. Judges, far too often, are politicians all too willing to cave in to religious pressure. The situation cries out for a simple rule, with no exceptions, ever.

Eliminating legal exceptions permitting marriage under eighteen with parental or judicial consent won’t eliminate all forced marriage. It’s still possible to coerce someone who is older. But it’s a lot harder, and less common. Organizations that have studied forced marriage advocate a simple rule, that even simpletons like me can understand: no marriage before eighteen, no exceptions.

During the long national debate on same-sex marriage, opponents kept arguing that allowing same-sex marriage demeans and weakens the institution of marriage itself, thereby harming traditional opposite-sex marriage as well. I never bought that. I do believe, though, that permitting underage marriage has exactly this effect. Marriage ought to be strictly viewable as two people making a careful choice to be with one another forever. Not a parent, not a judge, not a God expert. Just the two people who are going to be most affected by the decision, making it themselves, when they are capable of doing so, utterly free from any coercion. Anything less than that cheapens the institution that truly does form the bedrock of society.

Finally, one pitfall that US opponents of child marriage need to watch out for is RFRA, the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” in effect in twenty-one states and the District of Columbia. Suppose they fight the good fight and win, getting a legislature to enact a no-exceptions minimum marriage age of eighteen. If that happens to be a RFRA state, it would be quite easy for a parent to show up in court claiming that “My religion says my daughter can marry at sixteen, and she and I want her to do exactly that. It would be a substantial burden on our exercise of our religious beliefs to stop her, so you have to make an exception for us.” I think there is an excellent chance the parent wins that case, unless the bill drafters take care to specify that the minimum marriage age overrides the state RFRA.