Advocates say Senate leader Phil Berger is torpedoing effort to end child marriage 

Advocates say Senate leader Phil Berger is torpedoing effort to end child marriage 

- in Law and the Courts, Top Story
North Carolina is one of just two states that allow children as young as 14 to marry. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Under amended legislation, 8th graders will still be able to wed in North Carolina, but not buy a lottery ticket or work with commercial ovens

Dr. Judy Wiegand was only 13 years old when her mother accompanied her to get married to the 16-year-old father of her unborn child in Virginia. 

Wiegand, originally from Kentucky, told Policy Watch that she was sexually assaulted when she was 13. She had a crush on a boy who asked her to have sex. Wiegand didn’t consent, but she didn’t resist, either. She simply didn’t know what sex was or what the repercussions were. Her family had never taught her about puberty, boys and sex.

Wiegand said her parents felt pressured by the church and other community members for her to marry the boy. “I don’t blame my parents,” said Wiegand, who testified before the Kentucky legislature in 2018, which then raised the minimum age to 17 with parental consent. “I blame the community and the community’s way of thinking.”

Dr. Judy Wiegand

That’s why she decided to submit her testimony to the North Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee last week in support of a bill (Senate Bill 35) that originally raised the minimum age for marriage from 14 to 18 years old. However, several key lawmakers (none of whom ever heard Wiegand’s testimony read in committee thanks to a last minute decision to limit witness testimony on the bill to two minutes each) suddenly gutted key provisions aimed at raising the minimum legal age. Instead, the amended bill would still allow teens as young as 14 to obtain a marriage license as long as they were marrying someone no more than four years older. The bill passed the committee.

Research suggests the amendment keeping the minimum age at 14 would leave about 70% of child marriages in North Carolina untouched. Advocates said they are disappointed that the most vulnerable children will remain unprotected from exploitation.

Some bill sponsors said the amendment leaving the age at 14 was a compromise. But advocates for raising the age say the pushback came from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. 

Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, disagreed with the revision. “The difference in age is part of the problem in child marriage, but it is not the only problem with child marriage.”

Marcus noted the original bill garnered wide bipartisan support with 13 Democratic co-sponsors and a primary sponsor. “A lot of Democrats liked it enough that we put our name on as a co-sponsor,” Marcus said. “I’m left with this decision to make about whether I can even still support the bill that has my name on it as a co-sponsor.”

NC a ‘destination for child marriage’

North Carolina laws currently allow minors between 16 and 18 to obtain a marriage license with the consent of their parents or guardians. Children ages 14 to 16 can marry in cases of pregnancy or childbirth, regardless of the other party’s age, when a judge authorizes such marriage. 

With neighboring states passing legislation to raise their minimum age requirement for marriage, North Carolina became a holdout, and what some describe as “destination for child marriage.”

Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger

In South Carolina, a bill to raise the minimum age to 18 has made headway in the Senate, according to the Associated Press. In 2019, the state raised its minimum age to marry to 16. 

Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger issues marriage licenses. He said he noticed a worrisome trend in his county: In two out of the last three years, more than 50% of the couples who had at least one party under 18 were from another state. 

He told Policy Watch that he contacted all registers of deeds offices in North Carolina to pull marriage license data from 2000 to 2019. The data, analyzed by the International Center for Research on Women, show that 4,218 minors were married between 2000 and 2019 in 50 of the 100 counties that voluntarily provided data.

Of the 3,949 marriage license applications involving minors, about 93% were between a child and an adult, according to an initial analysis.

Sen. Vickie Sawyer

“This amendment attempts to minimize that unsettling 93% statistic,” Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell and Yadkin, said in an email statement. Sawyer, a bill co-sponsor, said at the hearing that the amended legislation, though a “compromise,” would reduce the number of child marriages by instituting a four-year age gap limit.

However, researchers at the International Center re-ran the analysis after the committee meeting. When accounting for the amendment’s age gap, researchers found only 29% — not 93% — of child marriages had a gap larger than four years. The consequence of the amendment then, will be to allow 14-year-olds to marry 18-year-olds — but not 19-year-olds. The amendment still wouldn’t prohibit 15-to 17-year-olds to marry adults who are 19 to 21.

Lawful sexual intercourse or statutory rape?

The age of sexual consent is 16 in North Carolina. Individuals over 12 and who are four years older than the person under 16 with whom they have sexual intercourse can be prosecuted for statutory rape.

Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, a co-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, co-sponsored the original bill, but he also sponsored and defended the amendment saying it mainly aligns the requirements for legal marriage with statutory rape laws. Under those laws, for example, a 15-year-old can marry a 21-year-old with guardians’ consent if a pregnancy is involved.

Currently, state law authorizes such a marriage when one party is pregnant. And if the couple is married at the time of the intercourse, the adult would be exempt from being prosecuted for statutory rape. If they aren’t married at the time, the adult could be charged with statutory rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Under the amendment though, the couple could not marry because the adult would be more than four years older than the child.

Kayley Taber

The International Center for Research on Women study found that, in their sample, 57% of minors under 16 had a spouse who could have been charged with statutory rape, if the couple weren’t married. 

Kayley Taber is an assistant district attorney in Chatham County. She said leaving the pregnancy exception might conflict with state laws governing age of consent. “Once you start providing marriage exemptions like that, maybe you’re not backing up the criminal law,” Taber said.

Britt, an attorney whose firm’s specializations include family law, said at the hearing that the compromise is necessary. He maintained that while he originally filed the bill in a different form, he accepted the compromise. “I think we’ve done good with this amendment, even though it doesn’t go quite as far as what we would like you to do.”

Britt did not respond to Policy Watch’s request for comment.

An order from the Senate leader?

Reisinger, the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, said on Twitter that Sen. Berger insisted on keeping the minimum age at 14, despite advocates’ compromise to raise it to 16 with background checks and court approval.

Reisinger said advocates also tried to add a North Carolina residency requirement, which would prevent cross-border child marriages. However, this motion went nowhere. 

“It’s jaw-droppingly out of touch with the modern era, thinking that eighth graders can still be legally allowed to get married in our state,” Reisinger said. “I felt like all of this bipartisan collaborative effort to protect children just totally went away because one man disagreed with it.”

Berger did not respond to Policy Watch’s email seeking comment. Sawyer’s office did not answer questions about which stakeholders she consulted before supporting the amendment or whether Berger was involved.

Wiegand, who married under pressure at 13, criticized North Carolina politicians for serving their own interests to appease  some voters, whom she identified as the parents and family members, at the expense of the child. She said many families tend to marry off their teens to cover up the fact they had premarital sex and to avoid embarrassment. This is especially true in areas of high poverty. 

Wiegand said the pregnancy exception in the North Carolina bill jeopardizes children, especially those in lower-income and minority communities where there are economic pressures to marry.

“The words child and marriage should not be in the same sentence,” Wiegand said.

A stricter House bill (House Bill 41) has not been scheduled for a hearing and will expire for the session if it doesn’t pass the House by the May 13 “crossover deadline.”

Proposal to require legal emancipation rejected

Reisinger of Buncombe County said he then proposed a court-supervised process known as emancipation be considered before the marriage. He suggested to legislators that couples under 18 need to show proof of income, housing and education to ensure they have a safe and secure sound environment and to reduce the chances of against domestic violence and abuse.

Currently, the minimum age for teenagers to be emancipated is 16. But being in a marriage automatically emancipates a child, even as young as 14.

Prof. Cheryl Howell

Cheryl Howell, a professor at the UNC School of Government said the reason for allowing emancipation of a married minor is that it gives the child minor the legal status to transact in businesses and take care of themselves and their families.

Howell said that in 2001, legislators took action to limit child marriages by adding the requirement that a judge consider the best interests of the child and parents’ opinions when granting marriages for 14-15-year-olds. 

Granting marriage licenses historically has helped establish parental rights. “It was probably more of a consideration about the child that was about to be born than it was about the parents of that child,” Howell said.

“The addition of the pregnancy provision [in the bill] doesn’t contemplate equal marriage because this isn’t about the right of children to marry,” Shaunis Mercer, a Raleigh-based family lawyer and former assistant juvenile defender said. “This is about the rights of parents to abscond their own parenting responsibility by marrying off their child who is pregnant or has gotten someone else pregnant.”

“A juvenile’s emancipation relieves a child’s parent, guardian, or custodian of all legal duties and obligations over the child,” UNC School of Government professor Sara DePasquale wrote in a blog post. 

A frequently destructive power imbalance

Mercer cautioned that 14- and -15- year-olds can’t work full time; nor can they drive. This creates a dependency and power imbalance between the spouses that can easily be exploited by an abuser.

After 15 years, 59% of marriages of women who married under 18 ended up with a divorce, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

“Our synthesis of the literature shows that remaining unmarried under 18, even in the case of pregnancy, has better outcomes for teen mothers and their children,” the International Center for Research on Women said in a statement.

That’s what happened to Wiegand. While she could legally marry, she couldn’t get a job because of child labor laws. Impoverished, Wiegand dropped out of school and relied on food stamps and state-supported services. 

Raising her child was “extremely challenging” she said. Wiegand said she could sometimes only afford to buy a gallon of milk for her child and drink a small portion of it with black coffee so she wouldn’t stay hungry all the time.

Wiegand said her then-husband allegedly abused both her and their child. Only when Wiegand turned 18 could she get a divorce. 

“He would not have been someone I would have married,” Wiegand said. “We were not compatible at all. You don’t live happily ever after.”