Our View: Past time to update child marriage laws

There are laws against inappropriate relationships among adults and children. Call it child molestation, child abuse, or another name. But whatever you call it, call it a crime.

That is why it is so puzzling that Kentucky is in the spotlight this week for debate about whether or not to raise the legal age for marriage. We have to wonder why this is even a debate? Should children be allowed to marry other children? No. Should adults be allowed to marry children? Absolutely not.

That’s why we implore our local legislators to carefully consider voting in favor of Senate Bill 48, to provide protection for teenagers who lack the maturity and should lack the right to be married before their 18th birthday, barring very specific circumstances.

The proposed legislation would change the legal age for marriage to 18, but allow 17-year-olds to marry with a judge’s permission if the age difference is less than four years.

Under current law, 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with a parent’s permission and teens younger than that who are pregnant can marry with a judge’s approval.

Kentucky doesn’t have a great track record statistically speaking when it comes to protecting children. We have the second highest rates of child abuse in the nation, for example. But it is still hard to fathom that we have the third-highest rate of teen brides in the country thanks to these lax laws.

The proposed legislation would require a judge to consider child abuse records involving the teen and sex-offender records of the adult.

The judge also would have to consider the maturity and independence of the teen, and whether the teen had completed high school or obtained a GED.

We believe the process should also include a careful evaluation of the child, looking for signs of neglect, abuse (physical, mental or sexual) and offer them a safe way to express their lack of desire for marriage.

Many who oppose the bill argue it “tramples on parental rights.”

While some would interpret that to mean groups are lobbying to give parents permission to marry off their 13-year-olds, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Some conservative groups have argued the law might allow judges to approve marriages for 17-year-olds without a parent’s permission.

The legal age for marriage should match the legal age of “adulthood,” regardless of the circumstances.

A bill that protects children and teenagers from the potentially negative effects of marriages they are too young to fully understand or approve of — poverty, halted education gains, unwanted pregnancies, abuse or more — is long overdue.

We are so quick to put age limits — and appropriately so — on things like gambling, buying tobacco, buying alcohol, getting tattoos and piercings, and more. These are in place to protect our young people whose brains are still developing and who need some guidance to make better decisions.

It is more than time for Kentucky to reverse this negative trend and raise the legal age for marriage.

There should really be no question about it.