A bill that was intended to help the wedding industry in Alaska by removing the two witness requirement turned into something else with Amendment 9 on Thursday — raising the minimum age for marriage in Alaska to 16. The amendment passed the House on a vote of 33-3, with four excused.
Rep. Sara Rasmussen offered the hastily drawn up amendment to Rep. Matt Claman’s original bill. The amendment was co-sponsored by Reps. Harriet Drummond, Liz Snyder, Ivy Spohnholz, and Sarah Vance.
Three who voted against the bill were from the Mat-Su Borough — Reps. David Eastman, Chris Kurka, and DeLena Johnson.
Currently, younger teens can get married if they either have their parents’ permission or ask a judge to sign off on it. Alaska law currently does not permit those under the age of 16 to marry without court permission.
“Persons ages 16 and 17 must submit a parental consent form signed by both parents with their application. If one parent is sole custodian of the minor, a divorce decree stating custody rights or a death certificate must be presented as well. Alaska law does not permit those under the age of 16 to marry without a court order,” state law reads.
Instances of teens marrying at age 14-16 are rare. But for a teen who is pregnant, marriage may be the best of few options, especially if a teen does not want to have an abortion and wants the baby to be baptized in some churches. Amendment 9 strips a judge’s ability to make that decision about whether marriage is in the best interest of the individual.
Former Sen. Berta Gardner, who represented midtown Anchorage for many years, had tried to get the marriage age raised while she was in office, to no avail.
Rep. Claman has been offering various wedding legislation for years, such as making legislators automatically eligible to be officiants at weddings without having to register and pay a fee. His bill this year, HB 62, cheapens the marriage covenant by eliminating the two-witness requirement, and it gave Rasmussen the opportunity to hijack the bill’s original intent. Notably, the two are paired against each other in the same district, under the new political maps approved by the Alaska Redistricting Board. Claman voted in favor of the Rasmussen amendment.
Rep. DeLena Johnson of Palmer said she opposed it because this was committee work that was being done on the floor. “I don’t typically vote yes on those kinds of amendments,” she said.
Rasmussen had rewritten her amendment three times and then, after the bill was delayed, got help from the Legislature’s legal staff in crafting the amendment properly, legislators noted.
Johnson has other concerns, too. “There are cultures in Alaska that have been here for long time that are not all the same and some have a history of having young marriages. My own mother married at 14 and lived a long and productive life with my father,” she said. “I don’t believe that people have had a chance to think about affects on other cultures because we were, in fact, doing committee work on the floor.”
Old Believers in Alaska, a group of Russian-heritage, very conservative Christians, may marry earlier than people in other cultures. It’s not uncommon for them to marry at age 15.
In recent generations, people marrying at 16 was not uncommon, although 21-22 was more common. Today the average age of marriage is between 25-20 years old. In Alaska, the average age for women to marry is 26, while the average age for men to marry is 28.7.
All over the country, the rate of marriages is dropping. “Since the start of the 21st century, the marriage rate has declined from more than eight marriages per 1,000 down to six marriages per 1,000 population in 2019. That marriage rate is the lowest level since the U.S. government began keeping marriage records for the country in 1867,” according to reporting by The Hill.