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A ring by spring

States are beginning to raise the marriage age to 16, 17, and 18. Christian groups have larger cultural concerns but tend to agree with the new laws

A ring by spring

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

As a 16-year-old, Diana Frazer wrote a letter to her 18-year-old high-school boyfriend Gary Frazer to let him know she was pregnant. He had recently graduated and moved from their hometown in eastern Iowa to Missouri. She didn’t hear anything for some months. Then one day as she was walking out of her high school, there was Gary, waiting for her. He asked her to marry him, and she said yes.

Diana’s strictly observant Catholic parents were unhappy with her decision to marry Gary, but in 1974 they signed the required legal document in Iowa to allow her to get married as a 16-year-old. She dropped out of high school and worked a series of minimum wage jobs—waitressing, pumping gas. Diana and Gary moved into his parents’ house.

They fought over money, and Gary wanted to continue his social life as if he were still an unmarried 18-year-old. Two years into their marriage, with another baby on the way, they divorced. The teenage divorce rate is about twice that of those who marry at 25 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We thought we were mature enough,” said Diana, now 60, “but we weren’t.”

Several states this year have raised the minimum marriage age, and more are weighing such bills. The legal marriage age in most states is well below what most might expect in this era of delayed marriage.

Twenty-seven states don’t have a minimum marriage age. They simply require court approval. Most of the other states set a minimum age at 14 to 16. Massachusetts relies on case law (rather than a statute), which sets the minimum age at 14 for boys and 12 for girls—a reflection of English civil law from colonial days.

Last year Virginia, which had no minimum marriage age, instituted a minimum marriage age of 18, or 16 for emancipated minors. This year New York outlawed marriage under the age of 17, and 17- and 18-year-olds need court approval to marry. Also this year Connecticut raised its marriage age to 16, and Texas passed a bill allowing only emancipated minors to marry (teens in Texas can gain emancipation beginning at 16). The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill banning marriage completely until 18, but Gov. Chris Christie issued a conditional veto—meaning that if the Legislature agreed to changes he proposed, the bill would become law.

Christie suggested that instead of the outright ban on marriage under 18—which he said could “violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey”—the state should ban marriages under the age of 16 (which the state currently allows with parental and judicial consent), and that marriages of 16- and 17-year-olds would need parental and judicial consent.

“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 without so much as parental knowledge, let alone consent,” Christie wrote in his veto.

Taylor Ahearn

Unchained At Last members protesting in the New York Statehouse in Albany, N.Y. (Taylor Ahearn)

The most visible group behind this national push to raise the marriage age, Unchained At Last, held protests against Christie’s veto where women wore chains and wedding dresses. The group is new to the scene—its first tax filing of a form 990 is from 2012, when it had about $13,000 in contributions, and it has since grown to $300,000 in contributions. A Bahá’í group, the Tahirih Justice Center, has been working longer and more behind-the-scenes to raise the marriage age.

Unchained, under the banner of women’s rights, has allied itself with pro-abortion groups. It took part in a fundraiser with the Feminist Majority Foundation, where the speaker decried the threats to abortion under President Donald Trump. Unchained has held protests with the National Organization for Women, another pro-abortion group. Tahirih doesn’t take a position on abortion, but also works with these groups. Those alliances sparked resistance to the New Jersey bill from New Jersey Right to Life.

These new laws raising the marriage age address a tiny slice of marriages in the country, a slice that is getting smaller and smaller.

“We weren’t sure we were going to take a position on it,” said Marie Tasy, the head of New Jersey Right to Life. Then state Sen. Michael Doherty contacted Tasy about the bill, with concerns that it would increase abortions. Tasy decided his concerns were valid. She agrees with Christie’s position, establishing an outright ban on those under 16.

Gaston De Cardenas/Genesis

Evelyn Irizarry and her second husband (Gaston De Cardenas/Genesis)

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.


David Talcott (Handout)

David Talcott—a philosophy professor at the King’s College in New York, and an expert on sexuality and marriage—agrees that young teens shouldn’t be getting married, but he worries about the “infantilization” of American teenagers. American culture treats 16- and 17-year-olds as incapable of acting as adults, he said. Talcott and his wife married at 20, and now at 35 they have six children. He said he gets “a lot of weird looks.”

‘Raising the marriage age above the age of consent shows that we have a highly distorted view of human sexuality.’
—David Talcott

“If I were in the state legislature, would I oppose a lot of these laws? Maybe not,” said Talcott. “For the most part 16-year-olds aren’t great candidates for marriage. The question is if you want to make it totally illegal.”

He added, “Raising the marriage age above the age of consent [as the New York and New Jersey legislatures did] shows that we have a highly distorted view of human sexuality.” The age of consent in both New York and New Jersey is 16.

THOUGH DIANA AND GARY FRAZER’s early years were difficult, their story has a happy ending. Two years after their divorce, they remarried. Four years later Diana became a Christian after her newly born-again sister insisted that she needed a personal relationship with Jesus. Gary became a Christian the following year—he and their oldest daughter were baptized together—and they joined the Baptist church in town.

Nineteen years after Diana had her daughter, she joined her daughter to attend college at Gary’s insistence. Diana had wanted to be a nurse before she had her baby. Going back to school was difficult at 35, but Gary took on many of her responsibilities at home and they made it work.

“Having Christ involved, being in the center of our home, helped us to get through,” said Diana.

Diana is torn about state laws raising the marriage age. She doesn’t think 17-year-olds are ready to be married, but she also doesn’t like the idea of the government completely barring marriage before 18. Other couples might not have the struggles she and Gary had.

Evelyn Irizarry, having escaped her abusive husband to Puerto Rico, eventually returned to New York. About a decade later she remarried, and the two soon became Christians together. Her ex-husband has since died, but Irizarry said he also came to faith while he was alive. She and her second husband are happily married and had a daughter together, born on the Staten Island Ferry as they were passing the Statue of Liberty. They have 20 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Irizarry, like Diana Frazer, also counsels teens to wait to get married.

“If a young girl came to me, I would tell her to wait,” she said. “If he’s for you, you can wait.”

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.