Several news stories in the last few months have drawn attention to unusual aspects of some marriage and divorce laws in the United States. Total Divorce has highlighted the issue of divorce for same-sex couples, which has been declared unlawful in Rhode Island and okay in New York.
This month, Texas officials' raid of the Eldorado compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) has highlighted another interesting part of family law, namely, the laws governing polygamy and marriage eligibility age.
According to reports from the Los Angeles Times, Texas officials raided the group's polygamist compound earlier this month when a 16-year-old girl called a family shelter to report that she had been forced to marry at age 15 and had been sexually abused by her husband. While searching for the girl, rangers reportedly took more than 400 children into the state's protective custody.
The raid was the most significant action against the FLDS since 1953, when Arizona officials evidently enacted a similar raid on the group's headquarters, which were in Arizona at the time. Sources indicate, though, that negative press showing children separated from their parents caused criticism of the state's governor, who lost his job a year later.
Since then, elected officials in Arizona and Utah, where the FLDS have traditionally had strongholds, have evidently turned a blind eye to some of the group's practices, such as "spiritual marriages" between underage girls and adult men and polygamy.
Plural marriage has been illegal in the United States since President Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in 1862. Despite this, the spokesman for Utah's Attorney General's office has reportedly claimed that polygamy in Utah is deeply entrenched and officials do better to build a sense of trust between those who practice it in hopes of encouraging them to report crimes like child abuse.
But during the raid of the Eldorado ranch, it seems law enforcers saw widespread child abuse, in the form of many girls who were too young to be legally married and pregnant, if not already mothers.
In most states, people younger than 18 who wish to get married require parental consent; many states require the additional consent from a judge or family court for those under 16. But eight states forbid any marriage for those under 16, and two prohibit marriage for anyone younger than 17.
In 2005, Texas apparently revised its marriage statutes so that those younger than 16 could not legally marry. Before then, the age limit in the state was 14. The Times suggests that the upward revision was a reaction to the practices of the FLDS group, which had moved to a compound in Eldorado, TX in 2003.
The recent raid shows that Texas officials are less willing than those in Utah and Arizona to overlook the illegal "spiritual marriages" between girls in the FLDS church and older men.
This case - like many of those involving same-sex marriage and divorce - demonstrates how powerful state divorce laws can be: in Utah, 15 is the minimum legal marriage age, and in both Utah and Arizona - where the FLDS has traditionally had strongholds - judicial approval is required for those younger than 16 seeking marriages.
At the time of the group's move to Texas, the state allowed marriage for girls as young as 14, which could have seemed attractive to members of the FLDS, who traditionally have women marry in their early teens.