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News / Politics

Missouri GOP lawmaker was married at 15. She now wants to ban all child marriages

By Kacen Bayless, The Kansas City Star
Published: March 23, 2024, 1:14pm

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Ending child marriage in Missouri is personal for Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, who was married at age 15 to her 21-year-old boyfriend in 1984.

A year earlier, her sister, at age 16, married her 39-year-old drug dealer, said Thompson Rehder, a Sikeston Republican.

“These are the things that are happening in the communities that I was raised in in Missouri,” Thompson Rehder, who is running for lieutenant governor, told reporters last week.

Thompson Rehder and Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, have teamed up to sponsor legislation that would effectively ban all child marriages in Missouri. The bill would prohibit marriage licenses from being issued to anyone under 18 under any circumstance.

Lawmakers held a hearing on the legislation in early January. However, the bill has not yet been debated in front of the full chamber at the halfway point of this year’s legislative session.

Missouri state law currently allows 16- and 17-year-olds to get married in Missouri as long as they have parental consent. The current law, however, bans marriage between a minor and anyone 21 or older.

“Child marriage is the legalization of child rape,” Arthur told reporters last week. “Just because one parent gives permission for that child to be married doesn’t make it any less unconscionable.”

Missouri lawmakers in 2018 passed a law setting the state’s minimum marriage age at 16, with the approval of one parent or guardian. The law’s passage came after The Kansas City Star revealed that Missouri had the nation’s most lenient marriage law for 15-year-olds. It previously allowed children even younger to marry with a judge’s approval. The state’s statutory rape law does prohibit those 21 or older from sexual intercourse with anyone under 17.

Opponents of child marriage argue that Missouri law surrounding child marriages still doesn’t go far enough, leaving thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds open to the kind of abuse, poverty, helplessness, lack of education and exploitation that often accompany child marriage.

Before the 2018 law, 88% of minors who were married in Missouri were age 16 or 17, said Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit seeking to end child marriage nationwide. That means that the current state law failed to protect 88% of the people it was intended to help, Reiss said.

Between 2019 and 2021, 231 minors were married in Missouri, and most of them were girls married to adult men, said Reiss, who said it was “unacceptable.” She called on senators to pass the legislation from Thompson Rehder and Arthur.

“It is legislation that costs nothing, it harms no one and it ends a human rights abuse,” she said.

Rebecca Hurst, a former Missouri resident who now lives in Kentucky, became emotional when speaking at a news conference last week about her marriage to a 22-year-old when she was 16. She said her mother arranged the marriage to save her from “damnation.”

Hurst said her ex-husband physically, emotionally, financially and sexually abused her during her marriage, twisting scripture out of context “as a weapon” against her.

“He controlled my food, my wardrobe, my hair and my body,” she said. Hurst said that her ex-husband forced her to drop out of high school and forbade her from leaving the house alone at night. She said she could not buy her own groceries “without consequences.”

“I had no one advocating for me or my right to stay a child,” Hurst said. “Parents cannot always be trusted to make the best decisions for their child.”

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Thompson Rehder and Arthur both filed separate bills to strengthen the state’s child marriage laws this year. Those bills were combined into one package last month. On the other side of the Capitol, an identical bill from Rep. Chris Dinkins, a Lesterville Republican, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

During the January Senate hearing, only one person testified against the legislation: Timothy Faber, a pastor and director of the Lake of the Ozarks Baptist Association. Faber previously served as chair of the Missouri Human Rights Commission, which enforces the state’s non-discrimination law, until he resigned in December.

Faber, who was appointed to the commission in 2021 by Republican Gov. Mike Parson, refused to say why he stepped down in an interview with The Star. Senate Democrats last year called for Parson to remove Faber from the commission after he opposed adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the non-discrimination law.

Faber on Monday said he opposed the legislation banning child marriage because it does not include any exceptions. He pointed to a situation where a “girl gets pregnant and rather than having the child born out of wedlock, they decide to go ahead and get married.” He also said there should be exceptions for teenagers who want to get married before they are shipped off to the military.

“If they would just make some rare exceptions, I would have been in favor of that bill,” he said. “But there’s absolutely no allowances made for any kind of exception whatsoever. And that’s the problem I have.”

The legislation also comes less than a year after Sen. Mike Moon, a hard-right Republican from Ash Grove, made comments in a hearing suggesting that children as young as 12 should be able to get married as he pushed legislation that would ban gender-affirming care for minors.

Moon did not return a call and text for comment on Monday.

However, Thompson Rehder last week said that no one had approached her opposing the bill and that it had support from both Republicans and Democrats.

“We do not need to hamstring our girls, and it takes women across the aisle to fight for this,” she said. “I think a lot of folks just don’t know that in Missouri, that this is what the laws are.”

Arthur, the Kansas City Democrat, said that opposing child marriage was an issue that transcends politics.

“Most 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds, they’re not Republicans or Democrats,” Arthur said. “It’s our responsibility to protect children, to protect girls and make sure that they have bright futures in our state.”

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