“Who, being loved, is poor?”
— Oscar Wilde
“The bonds of matrimony are like any other bonds — they mature slowly.”
— Peter De Vries
Despite the United States Supreme Court’s foray into the marriage arena last June, Ohio law still contains a marriage provision that treats two distinct groups very differently. That’s because Ohio law says that men have to be 18 years old to marry, but women need only be 16 in order to tie the knot.
Most states’ marriage laws provide for a minimum age that a person must attain before they can marry. If the person is under that age, they must get permission in order to get a marriage license. In most jurisdictions, that permission can only come from the child’s parent, a person who legally stands in place of the parent or by way of an order from a court.
In many cases, the marriage laws permit the issuance of a marriage license only because the minor is pregnant. Most states also have laws that prevent adults from engaging in sexual relations with persons under a certain age and that severely punish sexual activity with younger children. Thus, the very act that allows the marriage to happen (the sexual activity that leads to the pregnancy) is itself a serious crime.
In one such case in Georgia, 37-year-old Lisa Lynette Clark married a 15-year-old friend of her son. Georgia law in effect at the time allowed anyone — of any age — to marry, without parental consent, if they can prove that the bride is pregnant. Clark was carrying the child of the 15-year-old, so a marriage license was issued. Georgia also saw the marriage of a 14-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl under the same law.
Following their marriage, both Clark and her husband were prosecuted. She was charged with a felony sex offense, the proof of which was her pregnancy. He was charged because he was on probation for a burglary offense and fled after they were married. Clark was convicted and served three years in prison. The couple reunited after she was released, but have since divorced.
Matthew Koso of Falls City, Nebraska, impregnated a 13-year-old. Nebraska law does not allow minors under 17 to marry and so the two simply traveled over the state line to Kansas, where anyone over 12 can get married with their parents’ consent. Although the bride’s mother had originally sought a restraining order against Koso, she withdrew the restraining order and consented to the marriage since her daughter was pregnant. Because Koso and the girl had permission, their Kansas marriage was legal. Their baby, a girl, was born shortly after the new bride turned 14.
In Nebraska, the state attorney general charged Koso with statutory rape because he was 21 and his wife 13 when their child was conceived. The attorney general conceded that their marriage was valid but insisted that their activity was criminal. He was right. Koso pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 15 months in prison and was ordered to register as a sex offender. The couple had two more children following his release from prison.
Georgia amended their marriage laws following the Clark case, and states throughout the country are now in the process of reviewing their laws about minors marrying. None of the states that neighbor Ohio has different ages for marriage consent, but several states allow some minors to marry without permission or to marry if one is pregnant.
A recent study by the Associated Press determined that over the last 20 years, 3,500 minors were married in New Jersey, 90 percent of them women and 178 of them under the age of 15. In Virginia, 4,500 minors were married between 2000 and 2013, and 220 of them were under the age of 15. Virginia legislators are moving to change that state’s laws to make it harder for minors to marry.
Arkansas, Rhode Island and Mississippi are the only states other than Ohio that have different minimum ages for men and women to marry.