State Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville | Photo via LRC Public Information

After five days of national uproar on social media, the Senate Judiciary Committee of the Kentucky General Assembly unanimously voted on Tuesday to approve Senate Bill 48, which raises the legal age to marry in Kentucky.

On Thursday, Insider Louisville first reported on the scheduled committee vote for SB 48 being delayed for a second time, with lead sponsor Sen. Julie Raque Adams tweeting that “it is disgusting that lobbying organizations would embrace kids marrying adults.” Adams told IL that it was the conservative Family Foundation of Kentucky that had put up last-minute opposition to the bill, arguing that it “diminishes parental rights.”

The original version of SB 48 prohibited anyone under the age of 17 from being married, while only allowing a judge to approve the marriage of a 17-year-old under certain limited circumstances. The amended version of the bill approved on Tuesday adds parental consent to the process for 17-year-olds marrying.

Under current law in Kentucky, 16 and 17-year-olds can marry with their parents’ permission, a girl of any age under 16 can marry as long as she is pregnant and marrying the expectant father, and a boy of any age can marry a woman that he impregnates — despite those latter two circumstances involving statutory rape.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the chair of the committee, told IL last week that the vote had been delayed due to unnamed “legislators and some other folks” who expressed concerns about the bill “replacing parents with government, and the precedent that sets or the path that this might put Kentucky on.” He told IL that he did not know if the Family Foundation was one of the groups expressing such concerns, though a spokesman for the group later told IL that the organization had asked Westerfield to delay the vote, which the senator confirmed in other interviews.

Family Foundation spokesman Martin Cothran told IL on Thursday that the socially conservative group was not opposed to setting the minimum age for marriage at 17, but had “a big concern” about the bill’s court approval process for 17-year-olds, as “it takes away parental rights, in terms of parental consent, and gives it to the court.”

Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, stated that the status quo of the current law “is the legalized rape of children,” adding that “we cannot allow that to continue in Kentucky and I cannot believe we are even debating this in the year 2018 in the United States.”

Westerfield and Cothran both expressed optimism that a compromise bill would eventually be taken up and passed, which eventually happened Tuesday morning by a unanimous vote. But the five days in between the delay of the vote and its passage brought forth national coverage and an uproar over social media.

Over the weekend, Westerfield tweeted that “while everyone on Twitter was calling people names yesterday I was working with stakeholders on (Adams’) SB48 (which I fully support as-filed) and I plan to hold a called meeting of my committee to hear it sooner so we can pass it and get it to the House ASAP!”

The Family Foundation criticized media coverage over the weekend and contended that it never sought to block SB 48, though the organization did issue a news release on Thursday expressing its opposition to the bill as it was then written and criticizing the bill’s supporters as not being “willing to budge in any substantial way from their flawed approach.” In the release, Cothran stated that “if you are going to take away parental rights, you should have a reason. This bill takes them away for no reason at all.”

“We support the goal of the bill, but the cure it mandates is not much better than problem it purports to solve,” wrote Cothran. “SB 48 attempts to prevent shotgun marriages with a shotgun approach.”

After the passage of the bill in committee on Tuesday, Westerfield tweeted, “Let the noisemakers shout into the ether,” while thanking the Family Foundation for its “great work” on the bill.

The bill must now be approved by the full Senate and House before it can be sent to the governor to be signed into law.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]