After weekend of national shaming, Kentucky’s ‘child bride’ bill to move forward

Martin Cothran of the Family Foundation spoke during a hearing of the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 in the Capital Annex in Frankfort, Ky.
Martin Cothran of the Family Foundation spoke during a hearing of the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 in the Capital Annex in Frankfort, Ky. Herald-Leader File Photo

Update: The bill unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and could be called for a vote this week, Associated Press reported.

Kentucky is somewhat accustomed to national scorn and stereotyping, but this weekend’s reaction to stories about legislation on child brides was particularly swift. From stories in Newsweek, Huffington Post and USA Today to tweets from all over the country, people had plenty to say, none of it good, about how Senate Bill 48 had stalled in the General Assembly, apparently over trampled parental rights.

But now everyone can calm down, says the chairman of the Kentucky Senate Judiciary Committee.

“While everyone on Twitter was calling people names yesterday I was working with stakeholders on @jrajra’s 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!” Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, posted on Twitter Saturday. Whitfield said he plans to hold a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

The bill, filed by Republican Sen. Julie Raque Adams of Louisville, would raise the legal age to marry in Kentucky to 18, although 17-year-olds could get permission to marry from a district judge if there is less than four years difference in age between the couple. Currently, 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with a parent’s permission, and a girl under 16 can marry if she is pregnant and going to wed the father of the baby.

Insider Louisville first broke the story on Thursday, quoting Adams as saying she was working on a compromise bill because The Family Foundation, a conservative group based in Lexington, had objected to the bill because it diminished parental rights. Martin Cothran, the foundation’s senior policy analyst, said the group was not opposed to raising the age for legal marriage but was concerned it would allow 17-year-olds to get married without their parents’ permission.

Later that day, the Courier Journal wrote a story that quickly gained national attention: “Kentucky’s ‘child bride’ bill stalls as groups fight to let 13-year-olds wed.”

In it, the newspaper reported SB 48 had stalled because of what Adams called lobbying organizations’ opposition. “It is disgusting that lobbying organizations would embrace kids marrying adults,” Adams had posted on Twitter. “We see evidence of parents who are addicted, abusive, neglectful pushing their children into predatory arms. Appalling.”

In the story, advocate Donna Pollard, who said she was married at 16 to an older man who began sexually abusing her at 14, said the Kentucky Family Foundation opposed the bill. The story initially said the Courier Journal was unable to reach Family Foundation Executive Director Kent Ostrander for comment.

On Monday, the Family Foundation demanded a retraction of the story. The newspaper did not retract the story, but Courier Journal Executive Editor Joel Christopher said the story was updated with new comments from Cothran, who said the group was concerned the bill would let a judge approve a 17-year-old’s marriage without the parents’ consent.

“We were for everything in the bill except for excluding parents in the marriage of a 17-year-old, and suddenly we’re for 13-year-old marriage,” Cothran said Monday. He said the group was offended by the headline in particular.

Under the proposed law, a judge considering a 17-year-olds’ request for marriage must check criminal records to make sure the intended spouse is not on the National Sex Offender public website or has past domestic violence issues. The court also can deny any such marriage if the minor’s intended spouse was in a position of authority to the minor or has been subject to domestic violence emergency orders.

A revised version of the bill will include new language that says a parent would also have to give permission for the marriage as part of the court process, Cothran said. He plans to testify in favor of the bill at an 8 a.m. hearing Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for the Tahirih Justice Center, a women’s advocacy organization seeking to end child marriages in the United States, told the Courier-Journal that Kentucky has the third highest number of child marriages after Texas and Florida.

Neither Adams nor Westerfield was immediately available for comment Monday.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford