In a story that flew largely under the radar last week, New Jersey Governor and Trump Campaign Booster Christ Christie, R, vetoed a child marriage ban, saying the measure would interfere with religious customs of communities in the Garden State.
Per the Philadelphia Inquirer:
But the Republican governor recommended that lawmakers make changes that would place more restrictions on the practice, including barring children under 16 from marrying and requiring that judges approve marriages of 16- and 17-year-olds.
Currently, a judge has to approve marriages of children 15 and younger, while 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental approval.
“An exclusion without exceptions would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions,” Christie said in his veto message. “Judicial oversight would permit consideration of these factors in the 16- and 17-year-old timeframe.”
He went on to point out the inconsistencies between such a proposed law and the rest of New Jersey’s criminal code, which allows 16-year-olds to consent to sex and obtain an abortion without parental consent, calling instead for more specific restrictions than an outright ban, which he called a “severe bar.”
“It is disingenuous to hold that a 16-year-old may never consent to marriage,” Christie added, “although New Jersey law permits the very same 16-year-old to consent to sex or obtain an abortion without so much as parental knowledge, let alone consent.”
This reasoning – clouded in deft politicianese – appears to have some sort of merit at first blush, but the ability of a minor to kill an unborn child or have sex are issues with the laws on the books, not good reasons to block a ban on child brides.
Unchained at last, a nonprofit in favor of the child bride ban and against arranged marriages in general explains on its website that the state’s current legal code contains multiple loopholes for arranged child marriages, which would have been remedied by the vetoed provision.
“[C]hildren ages 16 or 17 may wed with ‘parental consent’ (with no process in place to ensure it’s not actually ‘parental coercion’),” they explain, “and children 15 or younger may wed with judicial approval (with no minimum age below which a judge may no longer approve a marriage, and with no instructions for judges not to approve marriages for couple at ages or with age differences that are considered statutory rape).”
Indeed, this is where the governor’s First Amendment reasoning falls short; allowing these underage arranged child marriages to continue to appease religious sensibilities plays into one of the biggest misconceptions about our precious first freedoms: that people’s conscience rights give them an absolute pass to break laws or act contrary to compelling societal interests. If the coerced marriage of children is something that a just society will not tolerate, then there are certainly limits and responsibilities to conscience rights that come into play.
As I explained in greater detail last year, claims to religious liberty have to be balanced in order to avoid license. As with any fundamental right, there are responsibilities that keep it from becoming mere license.
Certainly there are limits to what practices should be permitted to comport with religious practice. Two easy examples to illustrate this are ritual human sacrifice and female genital mutilation. Under this understanding, the biblical warning not to “spare the rod” does not give a parent absolute license for physical abuse of a child, and even the sacrifice of chickens by a Santeria priestess, a federal judge has previously ruled, must be done humanely and within the confines of animal cruelty laws.
President James Madison – father of our Constitution – once defended the principle that “every religious profession, which does not by its principles disturb the public peace, ought to be tolerated by a wise state.” If our public peace includes insuring that kids aren’t coerced into marriage, that’s where protection of religious custom ought to end.
Certainly our society has a deep and abiding interest in ensuring that our fellow citizens are not sacrificed or mutilated in the pursuit of a robust religious pluralism. One would also certainly hope that child marriage would also fit into this equation. Not, apparently, for governor Chris Christie.