The Hmong marriage legislation focuses on the role of the Mej Koob (pronounced May Kong). In Hmong cultural weddings, the Mej Koob don't fornalize the union, but rather, they negotiate the terms of the marriage. Usually there are two -- one for the bride's family and one for the groom's. While that union is recognized in the Hmong community, it's not a legal marriage.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, would place the Mej Koob among judges, priests and rabbi's as legal solemnizers, meaning that a cultural marriage would also be a legal marriage -- without the couple having to see a judge or priest, as is the case now. But Skoglund says his legislation would also assign the Mej Koob a new responsibility.
"(It would) give them the authority to marry, but then with that authority, give them the same responsibility that every pastor, rabbi, everybody else who has the authority to perform a marriage has. They must become mandatory reporters," he says.
As mandatory reporters, if the Mej Koob knew that someone underage was about to get married, they'd have to report it to authorities. Skoglund sees this as a child protection issue.
"These 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds are being forced into marriages that we wouldn't allow anybody else in our society to have to go into. I'm saying it's wrong and we should stop it," Skogland says.
However, Skoglund admits that he can't cite any cases of underage marriage, but he still says the bill is necessary. Minnesota law requires parental consent for children 16 and 17 years old to marry. And the law doesn't allow anyone under 16 to consent to marriage.
Rep. Cy Thao, DFL-St.Paul, who is Hmong, calls Skoglund's bill "horrible".
"Where is the information that says adults are marrying children?"
Thao says it's not that he supports underage marriages, but he doesn't know that underage marriages are a problem in the Hmong community and if someone DOES know of these marriages there's nothing that stops them from reporting them under present law.
"If they know, how come they didn't report it to the proper authorities? We have strict laws in this country, in this state, statutory rape laws," he says. "How come none of these people are being reported? If that's the issue, let's work on it away from the marriage issue.
Thao says making Mej Koob legal solemnizers wouldn't properly address the underage issue anyway since, in the Hmong culture, Mej Koob don't play that role.
"That's where people don't understand. They keep making the Mej Koob as the guy who solemnizes the wedding. The Mej Koob has never ever in the history of the Hmong people solemnized weddings. The weddings are solemnized between the two families or between the couple," he says.
Thao says Skoglund's bill would punish the wrong party -- the negotiator, instead of the adult who may be trying to marry a child. That's the concern also expressed by Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St.Paul. Moua, who is also Hmong, says she supports giving the Mej Koob the authority to sign marriage certificates to solemnize the ceremony. But she says in community discussions, the Mej Koob have said they worry that they'll be burdened with unnecessary responsibilities.
"They're concerned that somehow if we make them mandatory reporters and we attach to it some kind of criminal -- or some kind of penalty, it's unfairly making them the police of the obligations and responsibilities of the people getting married," she says.
While neither of the Hmong lawmakers are supporting the marriage bill, Skoglund does have some support in the Hmong community.
Ilene Her, of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, says changing the role of the Mej Koob is a good idea, even if it's a divisive one. She, like Skoglund, sees the Hmong marriage bill as a child protection issue rather than a cultural one. And although she knows that some fear that changes will water down the culture, she says, the culture has already changed.
"We are different. We are Americans. We're influenced by American norms, wisdom and knowledge that are very different, not to say that we're better because we're Americans, but this is the society we live in, we've been able to figure out one or two things to be able to survive in this culture," she says.
It's not clear how much support is for Senator Skoglund's Hmong marriage bill. But Representative Cy Thao is working on his own proposal for how to reconcile with cultural and legal weddings in the Hmong community.