Alaska Legislature

Alaska legislator urges ban on marriage for 14- and 15-year-olds

It's rare, but children as young as 14 sometimes get married in Alaska.

State Sen. Berta Gardner, a Democrat from Anchorage, wants to put a stop to it.

A national story last year on child marriage caught her attention, she said — and it was before accusations of long-ago sexual misconduct involving teens surfaced against then-U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama.

"I wondered, gosh, does that happen in Alaska?" said Gardner, who used to work as a guardian ad litem, advocating for children in court.

She found out it does. The vital statistics arm of the state Division of Public Health reports that four children under age 15 were married in Alaska between 2006 and 2015.

One married an older teenager. The other three married someone age 25 through 29, according to the state's annual vital statistics report for 2015.

"It takes their childhood away," Gardner said. "They aren't socially or even physically ready."


Under current Alaska law, 14- and 15-year-olds can marry with a judge's permission, while those age 16 or 17 can do so with parental permission.

"Oh my goodness. We actually in some cases allow 14-year-old children to marry. I don't care if their parents want it. I don't care if a judge approves," Gardner said. "I think it's wrong."

She is proposing through Senate Bill 133 to ban marriage for 14- and 15-year-olds. Her legislation, if it becomes law, would only allow marriage for 16- and 17-year-olds who are officially on their own — emancipated by a judge who has found it is in their best interest to live independently.

Texas, Virginia and New York recently passed laws to increase the minimum age of marriage.

As a guardian ad litem, Gardner once advocated for a girl who sought to free herself from parents who couldn't take care of her. The girl was supporting herself and was emancipated. But Gardner said she wouldn't have encouraged even that teen to marry.

Why propose legislation if child marriage is rare?

"It's a small thing overall, but for those very few it could be huge," Gardner said.

Teen marriage used to be more common, especially for girls who became pregnant in an era when that brought shame.

Certain cultures view marriage differently and may accept child marriage. Some immigrants and refugees may also bring those traditions with them. It may be accepted in other countries, but that doesn't make it right here, Gardner said.

She is from Salt Lake City and her father's family is Mormon. Long ago, some were polygamous, she said. Young women ended up herded together with older husbands, because the young men were all driven away, she said. Now that's not accepted either.

More young teens divorce in Alaska than marry here, state statistics show. From 2006 to 2015, there were 12 divorces in Alaska involving a person under age 15. The other half of the couple was usually older than 30.

Some were married in another country, Gardner said.

"In that case you could say Alaska has rescued them," she said.

It's usually considered child sexual abuse for a much older person to have sex with a 14-year-old. But Alaska law says that an older spouse can use the marriage as "an affirmative defense" unless the young teen was unwilling to have sex.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.