TALLAHASSEE, FL — Sherry Johnson was only 11 when her mother forced her to marry the church deacon who had repeatedly raped her and made her a mother at age 10. Now 58, she is leading a campaign to close a loophole in the Florida state law that doesn’t set a minimum age for marriage if a judge approves it.
A judge approved her marriage to her rapist, who was 20 at the time. By the time she divorced him at age 17, she was the mother of five. The law hasn’t changed in the nearly five decades since Johnson was raped. Children ages 16 and 17 can get married with their parents’ permission, and judges can allow a marriage to take place at any age — which advocates for change say happens more often than most people realize when the girl is pregnant.
Last week, the Florida Senate voted unanimously to end child marriage in the state and set the minimum age of marriage at 18, with no exceptions. But reform efforts hit a bump in the state’s House of Representatives, which is considering a similar bill. The House Judiciary Committee amended the legislation to permit the marriage of a pregnant 16- or 17-year-old, with parental consent. It also limits the age difference between the two spouses to two years.
Among the opponents is Fort Lauderdale Republican Rep. George Moraitis, who voted against the amended version of the law. He told The Associated Press the current law strikes "a carefully crafted balance" and that he believes "women" who are pregnant should get married.
He cited a legislative staff analysis that showed in more modern times — the four-year period from 2012-2016 — only one young girl, 13, was allowed to marry.
"There’s literally only a handful of cases that would fall under what I would say are potentially abusive," Moraitis told The AP. "To focus on a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old or something like that when we’re talking about the hundreds and hundreds of people that could get married. I’m particularly focused on the pregnancy aspect of it. I don’t want the message to be that it’s better to not get married."
Republican Rep. Julio Gonzalez of Venice also voted against the child marriage ban, even with the exceptions, saying, in part, that it wouldn’t allow members of the military to bring their 16- and 17-year-old lovers with them when they receive out-of-state assignments.
"A lot of things happen when we turn 16," Gonzalez told The AP. "A lot of us are romantically involved and maybe have made a commitment to life to someone who is about to join the military. And that person is going to leave, and the only way that person can take you with him or her is if you’re married; otherwise, the military won’t fund it."
Those separations can strain committed relationships, he said.
"For us to, as a state, say that we’re in a position to pass judgment on the quality and trueness of your love after you hit 16 years of age, to tell you that you will be forced to not accompany your spouse, wherever that spouse may go, I think is an overstepping of our legislative authority," Gonzalez said.
Florida Department of Health statistics provided by the Tahirih Justice Center, which is leading a nationwide campaign to end child marriage, showed that 3,161 children were married in Florida from 2010-2016. Among them, 72 were under the age of 16, and in some cases, the spouse was at least twice the minor’s age.
Human Rights Watch suggests the problem is more widespread and that pregnant girls like Johnson was decades ago are still often coerced by their parents to marry. It said that from 2000-2015, 16,400 children under the age of 18 were married in Florida, and 80 percent of them were underage girls who married adult men.
Johnson has been working for legislative reform for several years as a member of the Florida Coalition to End Child Marriage, which consists of 13 organizations. The group called on the Florida House of Representatives to approve the Senate version of the legislation without amendment.
"I feel the whole system failed me," Johnson told MSN. "It wasn’t just one person. It wasn’t just one source."
She said Florida law protects minors in other ways that make sense.
"A child cannot do anything for themselves," Johnson told The AP. "Why marry a child that cannot open a bank account, can’t drive a car, can’t vote. Why allow them to do that? Why are your forcing someone to do that against their will?"
The progress that has been made is encouraging, Johnson told Human Rights Watch.
"I don’t want a single other child in Florida to go through what I did," she said. "I believe this is the year that we will end child marriage in Florida."
The problem isn’t Florida’s alone. The Tahirih Justice Center says Virginia was the first state to limit marriage to legal adults. In Virginia, state Department of Health records showed that from 2004-2013 nearly 4,500 children were married — nearly 90 percent of them girls who married adults, some of them decades older.
No state completely bans marriage for children under the age of 18, according to a Tahirih Justice Center analysis. In some states, boys as young as 14 and girls as young as 13 can marry.
"People just don’t believe that this happens in modern-day America," Florida Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto of Wellington, who sponsored the Senate bill to end child marriage after hearing Johnson’s story, told MSN.
"We’re responsible for our children and we should protect them," Johnson told the network.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Photo: Sherry Johnson, who was forced to marry her rapist when she was 11, talks with reporters after the Florida Senate passed a bill she inspired that would ban child marriage. The bill passed unanimously Jan. 31, 2018, in Tallahassee, Florida. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)