Yesterday the state of Texas began to allow members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) to recover the children who were illegally seized from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado on April 3. CNN reports that all 468 of the children will be returned except for a 16-year-old girl who, according to her attorney, was an "identified victim of sexual abuse." Speaking of which, yesterday the FLDS Church issued a statement in which it promised to abide by state laws that set a minimum age for marriage:
* The church's policies regarding marriage have been widely misrepresented and misunderstood. Indeed, much of the misinformation circulating on this subject seems designed intentionally to fuel the flames of prejudice against the church.
* The church's practices in this regard continue a long tradition of marriage in this country that would have been found to have been unremarkable in 19th century America. In the FLDS church all marriages are consensual. The church insists on appropriate consent, including that of the woman and the man in all circumstances.
* Nevertheless the church is clarifying its policy toward marriage. Therefore, in the future, the church commits that it will not preside over the marriage of any woman under the age of legal consent in the jurisdiction in which the marriage takes place. The church will counsel families that they neither request nor consent to underage marriages. This policy will apply church-wide.
* The church believes in purity, cleanliness, and innocence. Our children and families are the cornerstones of our lives and our religion. We hope that this modest clarification in policy will alleviate recent concerns and allow the church and its families to reside in peace among our neighbors.
That sounds like an implicit acknowledgement that FLDS members have not always obeyed state law in this area. When the church says "all marriages are consensual," it does not necessarily mean that the state, which has decreed that girls below a certain age are incapable of giving proper consent, would recognize them as such. At the same time, the church is probably right that its early marriage practices "would have been found to have been unremarkable in 19th century America." In fact, until just a few years ago the minimum age for marriage with parental consent in Texas was 14; the state legislature raised it to 16 in response to concerns about the FLDS presence in Texas.
I don't mean to imply that there should be no minimum or that the state should not enforce it. But it's important to recognize there is a degree of arbitrariness in drawing these lines, especially when animus against a particular religious group seems to be part of the motivation. Lord knows I don't want my 15-year-old daughter to get married, and it's hard for me to sympathize with a father who does. But arranging a match between a girl of that age and a guy in his late teens or early 20s is different from marrying a 13-year-old to a middle-aged man, and both of those are different from "pedophilia," which is how some of the church's harsher critics have described its customs.
The order returning the FLDS children, issued by the same judge who (according to the Texas Supreme Court) erroneously approved their removal, requires their parents to permit unannounced visits by state caseworkers, which "could entail medical, psychological and psychiatric examinations"; to remain in Texas and notify the states of any trips more than 100 miles from home at least 48 hours ahead of time; and to complete "parenting classes." Since the state still has not presented any specific evidence of abuse in the vast majority of these cases, these conditions seem unjustified to me, and the last one is especially insulting. Is there any reason to believe FLDS members lack basic parenting skills, or is it just that state officials don't approve of their religious beliefs?
Clarification: As a couple of commenters have noted, the real issue here is (or ought to be) the age of consent for sex. That gets conflated with the minimum age for marriage because having sex with your wife does not constitute statutory rape, no matter how much younger she is, as long as she was old enough to marry with parental consent (and in fact had that consent).
[Thanks to Tracy Cooper for the tip.]