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The Alaska House voted to finally bring an end to the state law that permits 14- and 15-year-olds to be married with court approval, but the decision wasn’t unanimous.
The 33-3 vote took place during Wednesday’s amendment process on House Bill 62, legislation that would reduce the required number of witnesses to solemnize a marriage from two to one. Proponents of the change said it was outdated and that the state should no longer condone the practice.
“This is one of the most significant things we can do as a legislative body this session,” said Rep. Sara Rasmussen, who proposed the amendment with backing that spanned the political spectrum. “I think about 14-year-olds. They’re freshmen in high school, they are children. … To rob them of a future is wrong.”
Current law allows 14- and 15-year-olds to be married with court approval. Minors ages 16 and up can still get married with parental approval, which was not affected by the amendment.
Data on the number of such marriages in Alaska is not readily available, but it was rare the last time there was attention on the issue. When former Anchorage Sen. Berta Gardner in 2018 proposed raising the minimum age of marriage to 18, she cited state data there were four marriages involving an individual under the age of 15 between 2006 and 2015. Most were with someone in their late 20s. During the same reporting period, Gardner said that there were 12 divorces involving children, including one where the spouse was older than 55.
Her work on that legislation was cited by Rasmussen during the debate on the amendment, who added that she was concerned that such marriages would deprive children of a good education.
The fiercest support came from deeply conservative Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer. Vance, whose children were serving as guest pages for the day, said that while such marriages may have made sense and been successful in the past, they were not anymore.
“I know this amendment creates a lot of consternation in the faith-based community, but I signed my name to this because I want us to look at the implications of our consent as a legislative body to 14- and 15-year-olds’ ability to get married,” she said, noting that her mother was 17 when she was married her father. “Teen marriages can be highly successful, but I also recognize that our generations have changed.”
She acknowledged that child marriages are typically the result of pregnancies and said she’s been approached by some in her community in such a situation—the situation being pregnant at 14 or 15—but said in many of those cases “Marriage was not the best solution.” She noted that the state’s age of consent is 16 and said it “seemed inconsistent” for the state to say 14- and 15-year-olds can’t consent to sex but can get married.
“We are supposed to be the guiding body that talks about what we feel is appropriate for Alaskans, legally. That’s why I rise in support of this amendment because I do not feel that children of the age of 14 and 15 should be getting married in today’s society with our approval,” she said. “Whatever circumstance they could be in that they feel marriage is the solution, I believe could wait until they are 16 when they are of legal age of consent.”
The measure ran into opposition from Reps. David Eastman, R-Wasilla; Christopher Kurka, the Wasilla Republican who’s running for governor; and DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer.
Eastman said the change wouldn’t stop anything and people planning on marrying children could simply go to another state where it’s legal: “If we eliminate that process, what are those in those situations going to do?” he asked. “I don’t think changing this law is actually going to improve anything.”
Kurka said it was a one-size-fits-all solution that didn’t fit all sizes. Johnson argued that there’s been no outpouring of opposition to child marriages in her community but was critical of efforts to provide minors contraceptives.
“I don’t want to sound like the person who is supporting child marriages and so on as if we’re talking about human trafficking, which we are not and I don’t believe that’s the intent of the statute,” she said. “I just want to say on the record that my mom was married at the age of 14 and was married to my father for many, many years until he passed away. They would’ve had a number of children who would’ve been illegitimate if they had not been able to marry. Times changed, maybe, but people haven’t. … Sometimes people become adults at a young age.”
The amendment passed 33-3 with those three being the only opponents. The House also rejected several other amendments to the legislation, which were almost all entirely sponsored by Eastman.
The overall legislation is scheduled to be taken up in a full debate during the Friday floor session. It would still have to clear the Senate and be signed by the governor to become law.