Arkansas leaves marriage age question to county clerks

Donna Hilton

Because Gov. Mike Beebe has not called for another special session to address the issue, each county clerk must now decide how to handle the issuance of marriage licenses, said Rhonda Cole, Clark County clerk.

A law passed earlier this year by the Arkansas legislature allows children of any age to marry if the girl is pregnant. The sponsors of the bill, Rep. Will Bond of Jacksonville and Rep. Jim Luker of Wynne, maintain that an extraneous word is to blame for the problem. The extra word allows any person under 18 who is not pregnant to obtain a marriage license with parental consent.

Bond and Luker have maintained that the law should have read "any person under the age of 18 who is pregnant can obtain a marriage license with parental consent."

There are only two ways to get the law changed - a revision by the state legislature or through a court case challenging the law. Until the matter is settled, county clerks are advised to work with their local circuit judges to determine how to handle the situation, said Faron Ledbetter, president of the Arkansas County Clerks Association. "Most clerks are working with their judges," Ledbetter said.

In Clark County, persons under 18 who apply for marriage licenses have to provide their birth certificates, proof of pregnancy, parental consent and open a case file for the judge to consider. The cost of opening a case file is $35.75 and the cost of a marriage license is $58, Cole said.

Ledbetter's procedure in his office in Washington County is similar. Any person there under 16 must get permission from a circuit judge to be issued a marriage license, he said.

The age of 16 is the key, Ledbetter said. "The old law allowed anyone 16 and up to get a license," he said. "Sixteen is also where the criminal statutes come into play," he said, referring to the age of consent.

Ledbetter said he spoke to Beebe while the governor was thinking about calling a special session. "The governor was in a tough spot," he said. "Do you spend tax payers' money on a special session or hope it works itself out? The governor did what he had to do under the circumstances, but I don't think the governor realized what we were going to have to deal with."

Cole and Ledbetter have faced the issue already. Cole said a pregnant 16-year-old came to the clerk's office to apply for a license.

Ledbetter's office has already had two or three apply for licenses, including a pregnant 14-year-old.

"It doesn't happen a whole lot," he said, "but it does happen."

Daily Siftings Herald