FLORIDA -- (WTVY) Florida lawmakers are considering banning child marriage, a practice critics say has allowed rapists to avoid facing criminal charges by wedding their victims.
Under current law, children are permitted to marry with parental consent and approval by a county court. New legislation (SB 140/HB 335) would bar anyone under the age of 18 from entering into a marriage in Florida.
More than 16,000 marriages involving children have taken place in Florida since 2000. The majority were 'Romeo and Juliet' arrangements where a young couple close together in age tied the knot while one or the other was still a minor.
The story behind Sherry Johnson's marriage in 1971, however, was much more complicated -- and traumatic. At age 11, she was forced to marry a deacon in her family's Tampa church.
"I was actually raped at the age of eight, got pregnant at the age of nine, gave birth to my daughter at the age of 10, forced to be married at the age of 11," Johnson said. "And, it was a terrible lifestyle that bleeds into my life today."
Johnson has become one of the public faces of the legislative drive to ban child marriage.
The prospects of passage look better than they have in years past, particularly because the bills are being sponsored by Republican leaders in the Florida House and Senate.
Still, supporters are encountering pushback, however mild, from those concerned that a state child marriage ban could undercut the well-intentioned matrimony plans of Florida's Romeos and Juliets.
"I'm just trying to make sure we're not talking about 17-year-olds getting ready to go off to the military, and now they want to get married before they go off," Sen. Perry Thurston (D-Ft. Lauderdale) said during a recent hearing. "We are talking about adults and minors, and I just find it hard to believe that there are jurisdictions in this day and age that are allowing adults to marry minors who are 12, 13 years old, pregnant, that somebody's not inquiring who's the father and actually prosecuting them."
But one of the many painful lessons Johnson says she's learned is that children of any age are ill-prepared to uphold the commitments that marriage demands.
"You can like this girl, she can be your girlfriend and you all can communicate and enjoy life, but why force into a marriage relationship?" Johnson asked. "You're not ready for that. She's not ready for that."