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Woodcraft interview - Early-teen marriages investigated

http://www.accessatlanta.com/partners/ajc/newsatlanta/church0330.html

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 3.30.2001

Early-teen marriages investigated House of Prayer made Alabama wedding trips By Alan Judd Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Heflin, Ala. -- A sign on the edge of town describes Heflin as the "city of opportunity." For teenage girls from Atlanta's House of Prayer church, the opportunity here is to become, at least under the law of Alabama, married women.

Five times in the past two years, records here show, girls as young as 14 from the House of Prayer have been wed in Heflin, the seat of the first county along I-20 across the state line from Georgia. The grooms were as young as 18, as old as 24.

Numerous others from the church have wed here during the past decade, officials said, although documents of those marriages were not readily available. While Georgia forbids children to marry before they turn 16, Alabama allows 14- and 15-year-olds to wed with their parents' permission. So when the House of Prayer's pastor, the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., loads his church bus for a wedding excursion, here is where he heads.

On a June day in 1999, two sisters were the brides-to-be. The sisters, their fiancÚs, their families, their pastor and several other church members rode the blue and white church bus across the state line near Tallapoosa. At the Heflin exit, 70 miles from Atlanta, they left I-20, then followed a winding two-lane highway into town, passing such local establishments as the Tasty Dip and the Heflin Car Wash ("Keeping Heflin Clean"). Finally, they reached their destination: the 96-year-old Cleburne County Courthouse.

Just inside the front door, the group walked into the county Probate Office. It's where deeds are recorded, license tags are sold - and, under a wooden plaque engraved with the Ten Commandments, marriage licenses are issued.

After paying $46 each for two licenses, the wedding party walked up the stairs to the circuit courtroom, which, with its aged hardwood floors and ornately carved wooden railings, could have been a set for "To Kill a Mockingbird."

There, barely 20 minutes after they entered the courthouse, the girls - one 15, the other 14 - said their wedding vows before a local judge.

"They looked like kids - just like kids," April Nichols, the chief clerk of the Probate Court, recalled Thursday as she related the story of the girls' wedding day. "Fourteen and 15 years old. You just go, 'God, that's too bad. That's just a child.' "

The state of Georgia agrees.

These two marriages, and others performed for House of Prayer members younger than 16, may be invalid, said Ted Hall, a lawyer who represented the state Division of Family and Children Services during a hearing into whether 41 children seized from church members had been abused through systematic beatings. The children's parents rejected a judge's offer to reunite the families on Wednesday, saying they couldn't agree to conditions limiting how they impose discipline. One of the conditions was to prohibit 14- and 15-year-old girls from getting married.

Georgia law recognizes marriages performed out of state only if they could have been legally performed in the state, Hall said.

"You may not evade Georgia law to go to another state for a marriage ceremony," Hall said. "That's the main reason they go to Alabama, because they can't do it here. The initial question we would have is whether these marriages are even legal to begin with."

Allen, the church pastor, defends his practice of "approving" marriages for girls who are 14 and 15, saying it prevents out-of-wedlock sex and pregnancy.

Asked this week during the abuse hearing whether girls that age are capable of deciding whether to wed, Allen said, "Some aren't and some are. It depends on the maturity."

"If you're not ready to marry, you're not ready to have four or five bastard children, either," he said. "I believe it's best for them to have sex with their husbands, have babies by their husbands only."

Although it's legal in Alabama, marriages involving brides younger than 16 have become relatively uncommon, said Nichols, the chief court clerk in Heflin. A review of marriage licenses stored in a musty courthouse safe found only a handful in the past two years, many of them involving House of Prayer members.

"Most of the ones who we do see," Nichols said, "are from out of state."

When girls from the House of Prayer got married in Heflin, Allen accompanied them even though he did not perform the ceremonies, court clerks said Thursday.

On April 5, 2000, he came to Heflin for a wedding of his own. Three days after his wife of 43 years died of cancer, Allen wed a church member, Trina Lynn Oglesby, in the Probate Office. Allen was 67; his bride, 24.

Allen cut a memorable figure in the town of 3,000 residents, always wearing a fedora when he brought couples to the courthouse for their wedding ceremonies. His presence was "kind of old worldly, like it was years and years ago," recalled court clerk Velda Thompson.

"They were very nice," Thompson said of the young couples from the House of Prayer. "They were very happy. They seemed settled, like no one was forced to do anything."

Still, she said, it was unusual for so many young brides from the same place to show up in Heflin.

"Did it catch our attention? Yes. Did we think something was wrong? No."

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