A bill outlawing child marriage in Kentucky had been expected to receive a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, but that vote has been delayed due to last-minute opposition by the conservative Family Foundation of Kentucky, according to the bill’s lead sponsor.
Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, filed Senate Bill 48 on the first day of this year’s session of the Kentucky General Assembly, which would prohibit anyone under the age of 17 from marrying and only allow 17-year-olds to marry with a judge’s approval.
Under the current law in Kentucky, 16 and 17-year-olds can marry with their parents’ permission, and a girl of any age under 16 can marry as long as they are pregnant and marrying the expectant father. Likewise, a boy of any age can marry a woman that he impregnates under the current law.
Adams filed the bill after media reports detailing how Kentucky has the third-highest rate of child marriage in the country — with more than 10,000 children married from 2000 to 2015, according to the Tahirih Justice Center — and the accounts of women like Donna Pollard, who was encouraged by her mother to marry an abusive man who was nearly 31 when she was just 16.
When informed on Wednesday evening that her bill would not receive a committee vote the following morning, Adams expressed her disappointment in a tweet.
“SO disappointed!” wrote Adams. “My SB 48 (outlaw child marriage) won’t be called for a vote. It is disgusting that lobbying organizations would embrace kids marrying adults. We see evidence of parents who are addicted, abusive, neglectful pushing their children into predatory arms. Appalling.”
Asked Thursday morning who was lobbying against her bill, Adams told Insider Louisville that it was the Family Foundation of Kentucky — one of the more prominent groups in Frankfort advocating for socially conservative causes — who argued that it “diminishes parental rights.”
Adams added that she and other legislators are now working on a compromise bill that she hopes will satisfy the concerns of opponents, but added that the problem is that “many times the parents are the problem,” as abusive ones sometimes send their own kids “into the arms of a predator.” Noting Kentucky’s shameful national ranking on child marriage, Adams added: “This is not kids marrying kids. This is kids marrying adults.”
Family Foundation spokesman Martin Cothran told Insider on Thursday that “we haven’t done much lobbying at all against this bill,” though they had “expressed our concerns to the chairman of the committee and asked for a week to work this out.”
Cothran said his group was not opposed to the bill setting the minimum age for marriage at 17, but added that they are opposed to the court approval process for 17-year-olds, as “it takes away parental rights, in terms of parental consent, and gives it to the court. So we have a big concern about that.”
“The approach of this bill is the opposite of what we would advocate,” said Cothran. “It takes away parental rights at the very beginning, and then includes them in a sort of incidental way at the end of the process. We pushed for changes in the language to allow for parental rights at the beginning and take them away where they need to be taken away.”
Cothran said their concerns could be “easily resolved” in a compromise bill.
Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Insider that the vote would not be held Thursday morning because “we’re continuing to work with some concerns that folks have — legislators and others.” He added that he hoped a compromise bill can eventually be agreed to and voted on, but “if not, I may run it as is.”
Westerfield said he did not know if the Family Foundation had lobbied against the bill, only repeating that “there are legislators and some other folks that have expressed concern.”
Their concern, according to Westerfield, is about “replacing parents with government, and the precedent that sets or the path that this might put Kentucky on.” While saying that he appreciated that concern, he pointed to cases like that of Pollard, “where there’s an abusive parent who does not have the best interest of their child at heart.”
“Some have implied that it was malicious or that they’re trying to slow walk or stall this,” said Westerfield. “That’s not the case. It really is just genuine thoughts and questions about it.”
Westerfield said he is working on the compromise bill that blends parental consent and the ability of courts to overrule it, but “if we can’t find a compromise, maybe I’ll just run it as is. I would support it as is, but I understand the concerns that others have.” He added that getting a version of SB 48 passed by his committee “is my plan and my hope and my intent.”
Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, said in a statement that SB 48 must be passed to end the current status quo.
“This is the legalized rape of children,” said Recktenwald. “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.”
The post has been updated to correct the age of the man Pollard’s mother encouraged her to marry.