Who is Protecting Child Marriage?

September 5, 2021


  • A deal to ban child marriage was on the table this year – and then mysteriously killed
  • Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger ordered the deal gutted
  • A compromise was struck to abolish marriage for 14 and 15 year olds, but keep it for 16 years and up.


Today, in 2022, it is still legal for children to get married in North Carolina.

Until 2021, it was perfectly legal for pregnant 14 year olds to be “married” in North Carolina. The only other state with a marriage age that low was Alaska (though 9 other states set no minimum age at all), making North Carolina a destination of choice for child predators in the southeast. In August of 2021, Governor Cooper signed a bill into law that raised the marriage age in North Carolina… but only to 16. Not the legal age of adulthood, 18.

The reason why lawmakers failed to end child marriage: some very strange politics at play.

A Blown-Up Deal

In the 2021 legislative session, two bills were introduced to raise the legal marriage age to 18, one in the House, and one in the Senate.

The House bill (HB41) had 48 co-sponsors and broad, bipartisan support. Yet despite that, the House’s Republican leadership bottled up the bill in committee, where it died without even a hearing.

The Senate bill (SB35), also with bipartisan sponsors, got a hearing in committee. And then, a funny thing happened:

However, several key lawmakers… suddenly gutted key provisions aimed at raising the minimum legal age. Instead, the amended bill would still allow teens as young as 14 to obtain a marriage license as long as they were marrying someone no more than four years older. The bill passed the committee. (NC Policy Watch)

That is – pressure from the majority Republican caucus altered the bill completely to still permit 14 year olds to marry, with some new restrictions.

How did this happen? One of the key advocates for the child marriage ban, Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, was explicit: the order to kill the ban came from Senate Leader Phil Berger himself.

That was on April 28th. Just 2 weeks later, on May 12th, Republican Senators Vickie Sawyer and Danny Britt (both co-sponsors of the Senate bill, along with Democratic Senator Valerie Foushee) announced they’d worked out a compromise in the Republican caucus: they could get GOP support for banning marriage for 14 and 15 year olds, but not for 16 years and older. The Senate approved the amendment, and that became the bill Governer Cooper signed into law.

Lobbying for Child Marriage?

As is routine practice, any bill that does not have majority support in the majority party’s own ranks cannot get a full hearing. Thus, even though ample (perhaps unanimous) Democratic votes were available to pass a full ban on child marriage, this was mostly irrelevant if the bill did not have majority support among Republicans.

In explaining why they couldn’t get majority support in the Republican caucus, Senators Sawyer and Britt explained it this way:

Sawyer and Britt introduced that compromise [allowing 16 and 17 year olds to marry] on the Senate floor after telling their colleagues they couldn’t get enough support to ban child marriage altogether because of lawmakers who married as teens, married teens or knew someone who did. (News & Observer, August 26th, 2021)

This begs many question: who leads the lobbying effort to defend child marriage in North Carolina?

We know that Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger personally intervened to gut the first bill, and keep the marriage age at 14. It’s rumored that the NC Values Coalition, a radical Christian fundamentalist group that is very influential in Republican circles, was also involved in lobbying for the pushback. At the end of the day, we do not know – Republican Senators Sawyer and Britt won’t say who persuaded them.

In the end, politics is the art of the possible. It is a good thing that North Carolina no longer allows 14 and 15 year old adolescents to “marry” (it is questionable if that is even a good use of the term). It is a sad commentary, however, that the best some of our state’s leaders can do is “compromise” to still allow some children to marry. Hopefully, lawmakers will summon the personal courage to raise the age to 18 in the future.

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