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Comprehensive Child Marriage Research Library

Sixteen Candles On My Wedding Cake: Implications of Banning Child Marriage in America


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Johnson-Dahl, Marie


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University of Illinois

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Students Against Child Marriage's Object Summary:

This piece explores the legal arguments for an against child marriage and ultimately concludes that an outright ban on child marriage is wrong on both social and policy grounds. This Note relies heavily on the fundamental right to marry that the Supreme Court has established under the Equal Protection and the Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment. Therefore, the state’s decision to infringe on the right to marry is subject to strict scrutiny in a judicial framework. The article explores the legal status of child marriage, as well as the efforts to enact child marriage reform, in each of 11 states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Virginia. It concludes that though claims that banning child marriage prohibits religious freedom are not constitutionally sound, the current narrative to ban child marriage is based on the supposed inability of minors to make their own decisions, which has serious consequences for reproductive and other health rights. They recommend that states collect better data on child marriage in their specific state, that minors should be emancipated before marriage, that parental consent requirements be waived, that guardian ad litems be appointed to minors during the judicial oversight process, and that states put in place meaningful safeguards against coercion, among others.

Article Abstract (If Available):

While the United States has worked to address the issue of child marriage abroad, child marriage still occurs on U.S. soil through a loophole: many state marriage statutes allow minors to marry with the permission of their parents or with judicial approval sometimes, as young as twelve. This is especially problematic where parents marry their pregnant daughters to their rapists or to men much older than themselves. In response, an increasing number of state legislators have passed bills amending their marriage laws, raising the minimum age of marriage, in an effort to protect minor girls. This Note explores the rapidly changing laws surrounding child marriage in the United States, analyzing the various arguments for and against it. In doing so, it seeks to determine which minors are marrying, whether minors may have any constitutional right to marriage, and whether minors wishing to marry might be able to stake a claim to religious liberty. This Note ultimately argues that states should tread with caution in making such drastic legislative changes. Though the legislators and lobbyists advocating for this reform undoubtedly have good intentions in seeking to advance the rights and the well-being of young women and minor girls, their actions could, in effect, do just the opposite. The dangerous, paternalistic rhetoric with which they are passing this legislation whereby they argue that mi- nor girls are incapable of rational decision-making could have unintended consequences for the rights of minors in other contexts. This includes access to reproductive healthcare, medical treatment, organ donation, and vaccinations. Thus, even if no religious right or constitutional right to marriage exists for minors, an outright, blanket ban on child marriage is wrong on public policy grounds. This Note advocates that states must take less stringent regulatory positions towards child marriage, implementing procedural safeguards to prevent against abuse or coercion, while being cognizant of their existing needs and recognizing minors as autonomous individuals.

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