Christie Strikes Child Marriage Bill, Cites Religious Freedom

May 18, 2017
Up-close shot of couple holding hands during wedding ceremony

Last week, New Jersey governor Chris Christie conditionally vetoed a bill banning child marriage without exception—a bill which would have been the first of its kind in the United States. Christie cited religious freedom as a key reason for his refusal to sign the bill.

Although the legal marriage age is 18 across the U.S., every state has options for underage youth to wed. In New Jersey, children 15 and under need judicial approval to marry, while children ages 16 and 17 need only a parent’s consent.

According to data collected from 38 states, at least 170,000 children were married between 2000 and 2010. Most cases, activists say, are underage girls marrying adult men.

Defenses of child marriage loopholes vary. Striking down a similar bill, New Hampshire Republicans argued that prohibitions against underage marriage would hurt military members seeking spousal benefits for their partner and pregnant teenagers.

Critics of the current loopholes, meanwhile, fear that such legal workarounds benefit perpetrators of statutory rape. Many states—including New Jersey—allow judges to issue licenses without an age minimum, even if one of the parties to the marriage is pregnant, Pew Research Center reported.

“There are still a lot of kids under 16 and pregnant who are showing up to get married and rather than someone saying, ‘We should be arresting this guy for statutory rape,’ they’d say ‘We should give them a marriage license,’” Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan told Stateline.

The rejected New Jersey bill was written, in part, by a woman who has made ending underage marriage her life’s mission. Fraidy Reiss, executive director of anti-child marriage nonprofit Unchained At Last, was forced into an arranged marriage in her Orthodox Jewish community at the age of 19. Reiss says that, even if an underage youth willingly enters a marriage, they often find themselves without recourse if they want to divorce. Underage wives escaping an abusive marriage, for example, are often turned away by adult women’s shelters. Their only means of escape is typically by moving back in with their parents, who often arranged the marriage in the first place.

"What we have found is that we can typically help women age 18 or over who are facing a first marriage or already in one to escape, but when it comes to the girls under age 18, we're almost never able to help because of the way the laws are set up," Reiss told the Boston State House News Service. "We've had terrible, terrible outcomes and enough heartbreaking stories that we realized we need to change these laws."

For Governor Chris Christie, it was religious and cultural concerns that swayed his decision. Calling the bill a “severe bar,” Christie said in a statement,

“I agree that protecting the well-being, dignity, and freedom of minors is vital, but [this bill] does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this State.”

Christie went on to say that it “is disingenuous to hold that a 16-year-old may never consent to marriage, although New Jersey law permits the very same 16-year-old to consent to sex or obtain an abortion.”

Christie’s refusal to sign the bill is a conditional veto, which means that the state legislature will have another chance to vote on the bill with Christie’s changes incorporated. Christie suggested the bill contain a loophole allowing judges to approve marriages for 16- and 17-year-olds, Reuters reported.

Although Christie cited religious freedom as a motivating factor in his decision to strike down the bill, he did not specify which religious communities in New Jersey might be affected by the ban. Surveys of child marriages in the United States have found that, while youth from conservative religious communities are much more likely to marry, the phenomenon of child marriage in the U.S. is not limited to any one religious tradition. A survey conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center found that “forced marriage is being seen in immigrant communities from 56 different countries, and affects people of many different faiths.”

In a New York Times op-ed on child marriage in America, Unchained At Last founder Reiss wrote that child marriage in the United States occurs among Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and other faith traditions.
“I have seen child and forced marriage in the Orthodox Jewish community, and I know survivors from Mormon and Unification Church backgrounds,” Reiss said.

At issue, Reiss says, is the question of whether religious preference toward early marriage can override provisions for young girls’ safety and access to legal recourse.

“Can you point to any religion that requires child marriage?” Reiss wrote in NJ.com. “Even if you found some religious cult that believes allowing children to become adults before they marry is a grave sin, [the bill] is still legitimate. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld laws that incidentally forbid an act required by religion but don’t specifically target religious practice.”

Christie’s requested loophole that 16- and 17-year-olds be able to receive judicial approval to marry, Reiss said, is insufficient to determine whether the underage parties are being forced into the union. “It puts the onus on children to find a safe way to tell a judge they are being forced to marry, when that means their parents might retaliate against them,” Reiss said.

“The fault is not on the judges, it’s on the law, and the law needs to change,” she wrote.

Reuters reported that the New Jersey bill prompted similar legislation in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. No state in the U.S. currently bans child marriage without exceptions.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Wedding Ceremony. Photo by Ian Chen, Flickr Creative Commons.