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Why child marriage is legal in California — and the unexpected groups fighting to keep it that way

By Mackenzie Mays, Los Angeles Times
Published: August 12, 2023, 5:33pm

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The marriage certificate appears unremarkable — another piece of government paper. But Mandy Havlik keeps a copy of it as proof of her past.

It was issued by the state of Arizona in 1999, a week after her 17th birthday. Her parents, strict Pentecostal Evangelical Christians, had pressured her to marry a 23-year-old suitor, an aspiring preacher at their church, she said.

Engaged at 16, Havlik had tried everything to avoid the marriage, she said, including running away from home. She was too young to be married under state law without parental consent, so her mother granted it despite her allegations of abuse against her now ex-husband.

“I was told I was ruining God’s will for my life and ruining my ex’s destiny with God as well,” she said.

Havlik’s mother died in 2019. Her father and ex-husband did not return requests for comment from The Times.

She and about 20 other women traveled to Sacramento this summer, wearing white wedding dresses outside the state Capitol. Some of their mouths were taped shut and chains were wrapped around their wrists; veils blowing in the wind. They were there to call on state lawmakers to outlaw child marriage.

In California, the age of sexual consent is 18 without exception, and anyone over that age engaging in intercourse with a minor can be charged with statutory rape. But the state’s definition of unlawful sexual activity between an adult and a minor only applies if they are not married. That creates what some advocates see as a loophole in which the act of marriage can sanction what would otherwise be a crime.

While child marriage is recognized as a human rights violation by the United Nations, there is no minimum age requirement to become married in California. For minors seeking to wed, however, the state requires approval from a guardian and a court order.

The policy comes as a surprise in liberal California, home to some of the strongest sexual violence protections in the nation. What’s more surprising is that opposition to a prohibition on marriage under 18 has not been driven by Republicans as in other states but by progressive groups including the ACLU and Planned Parenthood — both of which have sway in the majority-Democrat Legislature.

Among their concerns is that a total ban on marriage of minors could be a slippery slope and impede constitutional rights or reproductive choices, including access to abortion.

“That pretty much made it clear I was not going to be able to do this,” former Democratic state Sen. Jerry Hill, who attempted to ban underage marriage in 2017, said of the unexpected opposition from the influential groups.

Another attempt to ban marriage until 18 without exceptions will be introduced in the Legislature early next year.

Hill, of San Mateo, called discovering that child marriage is allowed in California — and the fight against his attempt to ban it — “the big shock of my life.” He became involved in the issue when a young constituent told him about a 13-year-old at her school who was engaged to be married to a 28-year-old in another country.

“I was amazed and appalled and frankly ashamed of California, that we had not done anything about this,” he said.

In Havlik’s case, the pressure to be in a relationship with her ex had been on since she was 12 years old and he was 18, she said — a move she believed was done so that her family could have more prestige in the fundamentalist church.

Church officials did not return a request for comment.

Havlik “had no legal recourse” as a teenager dependent on her parents, growing up in an insular community where watching TV and listening to secular music could deem someone “spiritually compromised,” she said. Three years into the marriage, when she was 20, she left. She is now remarried with children and lives in San Diego.

Havlik cried when talking about her daughter, who is 12 years old — the age when she said the pressure for her to become a “preacher’s wife” began.

“My whole lifetime, everything on the outside was bad. Everyone outside of that church was going to hell,” Havlik said. “To have it be the actual opposite, and to be saved by people outside of the church, I’m just so grateful for my community and to get out of that situation.”

While her marriage did not happen in California, Havlik’s case is reflective of some concerns advocates have raised about the state’s existing safeguards. They say that young marriages disproportionately impact girls in relationships with older men or those growing up in cults and religious communities where parents support the union.

They warn that victims of abuse are unlikely to tell the truth about their situation to court officials out of fear of repercussions at home. California minors seeking marriage are required to participate in family court interviews in an effort to monitor potential abuse or coercion.

Child marriage remains legal in most of the U.S., but a handful of states have moved to ban the practice in recent years, including Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. Unchained At Last, a nonprofit organization lobbying to ban child marriage across the country, is pushing California to do the same.

Assemblymember Cottie Petrie Norris (D-Irvine) said she will introduce legislation to require an 18-year-old age marriage minimum, pointing to other age restrictions in place to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and drive.

“The US considers marriage under the age of 18 in foreign counties to be a human rights abuse,” she said. “The reality is this is happening in the dark corners. It is absolutely shocking and it’s horrifying.”

There is conflicting data on the prevalence of child marriage in California — a detriment to supporters of legislation to ban it.

According to information obtained by The Times from the state Department of Public Health, 48 marriages involving minors have been reported in California since 2019. That is based on data reported annually by counties.

Those numbers are significantly lower than an analysis by Unchained At Last of census data, which put the number of minor marriages in California at at least 8,789 in 2021. That number is based on respondents of the American Community Survey who said they were 15 to 17 years old and had been married within the past year. Data for younger respondents is not available.

Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, called the California Department of Public Health data “inconceivable,” pointing to data in other states as proof of potential underreporting.

California is nearly four times as populous as Michigan but reported fewer child marriages in 2021. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, signed a bill in July to outlaw marriage under 18.

Nationally, about 57,800 minors ages 15 to 17 were married as of 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. A more recent study by Unchained At Last, which analyzed marriage certificates by states, estimated that nearly 300,000 minors were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018.

As part of its opposition to a previous attempt to ban child marriage in California, the ACLU cited a lack of data and said it “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental right of marriage without sufficient cause.”

The organization supported previous measures by the state to enact more oversight of underage marriages, but said in 2017 “we believe that some youth can appropriately make this decision for themselves.”

A spokesperson for the ACLU of Northern California said the group’s position on child marriage has not changed.

Petrie Norris said that even one child being married is enough to prompt legislation, and that arguments in support of the rights of teens in consensual relationships do not outweigh potential safety concerns.

“If it’s happening at all, it’s too much,” she said.

Reiss, who said she was pressured to marry a stranger at 19 while growing up in a strict Orthodox Jewish community in New York, said California’s standards can lead to a “nightmarish trap” for domestic violence victims.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, criticized Republican state Sen. Mike Moon of Missouri in a Tweet in April for supporting marriage as young as 12 years old. Newsom’s office did not return requests for comment about California’s policy on child marriage.

“We’re trying to solve a problem that California doesn’t seem to know exists,” Reiss said.

California otherwise maintains strict punishment for sex crimes. Nearly a decade ago, the state became the first to adopt “yes means yes” policies on college campuses, and in 2021, Newsom signed a law that criminalizes spousal rape.

It’s nonsensical, Reiss said, for California to allow exceptions for marriage when it comes to minors. She believes it is a crime in disguise.

“If you have sex with a child in California, you can be prosecuted,” she said, but marrying a minor amounts to a “get out of jail free card.”

Marriages reported to the state last year include one between a 16-year-old girl and 20-year-old man in San Diego County and a 17-year-old-girl and a 23-year-old man in Stanislaus County, according to data from the California Department of Public Health.

Statutory rape charges vary depending on the age gap between the victim and perpetrator, according to California penal code. Someone three years older than the minor can be charged with a misdemeanor while someone more than three years older can be charged with a felony.

A report by a U.S. Senate committee in 2019 raised concerns that girls in immigrant families could be at higher risk, saying that immigration law “encourages” child marriage. That report cited girls as young as 13 being married to older men seeking entry into the country.

Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California spokesperson Jennifer Wonnacott said in a statement that the organization “strongly supports protecting youth from abuse of all kinds” but said protections against exploitation should “not impede on the reproductive rights of minors and their ability to decide what is best for them, their health and their lives.”

The reproductive rights organization did not support past attempts at imposing age requirements for marriage because of concerns that it could set a precedent that undermines minors’ rights to seek abortions and other sexual health care.

Unchained At Last does not have an official stance on abortion, but Reiss said the issue has nothing to do with their mission and that they “feel very strongly that women and girls own their own bodies.”

The Children’s Law Center of California has also opposed marriage age requirements, saying that some minors have sound reasons for getting married, including that they are seeking legal independence or are pregnant and don’t want their children “to be born out of wedlock.”

A bill introduced this year would crack down on marriages of minors done through spiritual ceremonies that are not held to state standards. SB 404 by Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward) would allow criminal charges for anyone who performs such a marriage. The proposal would not apply to marriage of minors authorized by a court.

The bill initially aimed to ban underage marriage outright but was watered down amid early opposition.

“While some—myself included—have concerns with minors getting married under any circumstances, California does have some guardrails to protect children,” Wahab said in a statement, pointing to the state’s “rigorous” process to regulate marriage involving minors.

Even in its current, more narrow form, SB 404 has been met with 1st Amendment concerns regarding religious freedom and has also faced unlikely opposition from the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit focused on immigrant and gender-based violence.

The organization opposes child marriage and has spearheaded bans in other states but has posed concerns about Wahab’s proposal, which criminalizes officiants, saying it “may further harm” the children it aims to protect by “criminalizing” their family community members.

“In many cases, even after facing significant abuse, they still love and value these social bonds and hope for reconciliation,” the organization said of victims.

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A legislative analysis of the bill noted the gap in state and census data regarding child marriage as a discrepancy that “may be an indication of a serious, ongoing problem” in California. So far the legislation has received overwhelming bipartisan support, but it faces key hurdles to pass before the legislative session ends next month.