IN NEW YORK, before this year, a 14-year-old could marry with parental and court approval. Evelyn Irizarry was one of those young teens who got married in New York, back in the early 1960s. As a 14-year-old growing up in the projects in Rockaway, N.Y., she fell into the company of a 21-year-old gang member who was “very good-looking.” Soon she was pregnant, and after court wrangling over whether she was being pressured into the marriage (she says she wasn’t), the court approved the wedding of 15-year-old Evelyn.
Her husband Miguel Diaz paid the bills, but otherwise he was violently abusive, with Irizarry losing a lot of teeth. Diaz tightly controlled how much money she had and would take her clothes to give to other women. Sometimes he simply burned her clothes. They had three children together before she found a way to leave. Her boss at the time collected money for airfare. One day when she found an opening, she and the children boarded a plane, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and flew to Puerto Rico where she had family.
Christians in ministry with teens, teen brides, as well as academics I interviewed don’t have a cut-and-dried approach to teenage marriage, but they generally agree that the marriage age should be the same as the age of consent. They also emphasize that Christians should be sure to protect the vulnerable from potentially coercive situations—like a minor girl marrying an older man (the most common scenario in teen marriages).
From 2000 to 2010, New York reported 3,800 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 married. Eighty-four percent of those marriages were girls marrying adult men. In Virginia, state health department data showed that 90 percent of minor spouses were girls. What might be statutory rape is blessed in the marriage context. When Virginia was debating raising the marriage age, Delegate Richard Morris (R) argued for better laws protecting minors against abuse instead—like allowing minors to file for restraining orders.
Susan Field has ministered alongside her husband at Graffiti Church in New York’s Lower East Side as well as served as a chaplain on university campuses for nearly 30 years. Over her long career in ministry, she has only once ever counseled a teen girl who was considering marriage. Field had concerns about the marriage, but the 16-year-old went forward with it, and the couple remains married.
Field deals more with young women sleeping around and children growing up in single-parent homes. At her New York church and on city campuses she finds that “marriage is not usually in the formula.” When teenage boys accepted Christ at Graffiti—boys who grew up without fathers or outside of Christian culture—Susan remembered her husband Taylor Field telling them not to sleep with their girlfriends.
“They thought he was from outer space,” she said.
These new laws raising the marriage age address a tiny slice of marriages in the country, a slice that is getting smaller and smaller. According to a Frontline analysis of marriage records from 41 states, the number of minors marrying has fallen by half since 2000. It’s hard to find much demographic data on teen marriages, but anecdotally, those who have spoken publicly about being pressured into marriage under the age of 18 are from immigrant or religious communities.
Most lawmakers opposing an outright ban on marriage before 18 are careful to avoid naming the constituencies they’re hearing from who oppose raising the marriage age. In an email exchange with Gov. Chris Christie’s spokesman Brian Murray, I asked which religious constituencies had expressed concern to Christie. (Christie’s veto cited the “religious customs” and “traditions” of the people of New Jersey.) Murray didn’t respond. But Rep. Dov Hikind, a Hasidic state representative in New York, opposed his state’s effort to raise the marriage age, citing the good young marriages in his community.
Pro-life lobbyists in New York and New Jersey I talked to generally agree that the marriage age should be the same as the age of consent. The New York Catholic Conference didn’t take a position on New York’s bill, but supported “the concept of raising the marriage age.” New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a Protestant group, also didn’t take a position on the bill—Executive Director Jason McGuire said he would have preferred the requirement to match the age of consent.