Christian group seeks ‘early marriage’ retreat in Wichita

Photo illustration
Photo illustration Wichita

A Christian group that advocates for early, “fruitful” marriage is promoting a retreat in Wichita this fall designed to bring together families who are “actively, deliberately seeking a marriage for one or more of their children.”

The “Get Them Married” retreat, originally planned for Nov. 3-6 at Camp Hiawatha in Wichita, is still a goal for Vaughn Ohlman, who runs the Let Them Marry ministry and website.

But an outcry from critics Thursday prompted Camp Hiawatha officials to refuse the group’s request to rent the venue.

“We just today got news that we’re not going to be able to use the retreat center,” said Laura Ohlman, Vaughn Ohlman’s daughter-in-law, who lives in Wichita and was helping organize and promote the event.

“We’re unsure at this point whether it’s going to happen. … But it’s still a goal. We thought it would be a fun thing, and we’d like to do it.”

Vaughn Ohlman, who works as an ambulance driver in Schulenberg, Texas, operates a blog and website devoted to “the idea of Christians focusing more on young, fruitful, Godly marriages – getting rid of some of so many of the obstacles that stand in the way,” he said in an e-mail.

According to biblical interpretations posted on the site, supporters believe it best for girls to be married before age 20, and that their consent is not necessary.

“Scripture speaks of the father of the son ‘taking a wife’ for his son, and the father of the bride ‘giving’ her to her husband,” Ohlman writes, citing passages from Jeremiah, Judges, Ezra and other books.

“It gives example after example of young women being given to young men, without the young woman even being consulted, and often, in some of the most Godly marriages in Scripture, the young man is not consulted.”

How early should girls marry? For some, as young as age 13, says the Let Them Marry website.

According to Ohlman, a girl is ready for marriage when she has breasts, which “promise enjoyment for her husband.” A girl also should be “ready to bear children” and “ready for sexual intercourse sexually and emotionally,” Ohlman writes.

“We do not endorse marriage at ages as young as twelve.”

After news of the Wichita retreat began circulating online Thursday, Ohlman took to his blog to address critics who said the concept of the retreat was offensive and possibly illegal.

Under Kansas law, no one under the age of 15 can marry. Eighteen is the minimum age, although 16- and 17-year-olds can get married with parental consent.

“We are not going to be working on arranging marriages at our retreat,” Ohlman said in his blog post. “We are inviting people to come who wish to be intentional about marriage, not just those adhering to one particular kind of marriage.”

Calls to Camp Hiawatha, a 42-acre retreat center operated by the Salvation Army, were not returned Thursday, but about 2 p.m. the organization posted on its Twitter page: “The Salvation Army has denied a request by the Let Them Marry organization to conduct its event at Camp Hiawatha.”

On Friday, Janet Pack, director of development for the Salvation Army, said the decision was “based upon our long-standing commitment to the welfare of children.”

“We work every single day to provide a safe, caring place for children, many of whom have been left vulnerable due to the actions of adults,” Pack said. “We believe the activities promoted by Let Them Marry may breach our Safe From Harm guidelines put in place to protect children.”

Vaughn Ohlman, a father of six, believes that not only should most people marry, but they should marry in their youth. He also adheres to the “quiverfull” movement, which promotes procreation and eschewing all forms of birth control.

“We believe it incumbent upon the church, the family, and even the young people themselves to strive to promote young, fruitful marriages,” he said on his site, “to break the chains of false, unbiblical doctrine that has forbidden and delayed marriage.”

‘Amazing relationship’

Laura Ohlman said she married Joshua Ohlman in 2013 after a “betrothal” conducted by their fathers, which Vaughn Ohlman relates in detail on his website.

Laura Ohlman, who was 19 at the time, said she asked her father to find her a husband after being frustrated by more traditional courtship practices.

We don’t support forced marriages in any way. We say that marriage is a gift. My dad brought me the gift of a husband, and it has been the most wonderful thing.

Laura Ohlman, Wichita wife and mother

“We don’t support forced marriages in any way,” she said Thursday. “We say that marriage is a gift. My dad brought me the gift of a husband, and it has been the most wonderful thing.

“Since being married, I really have a heart to see others married because it’s such an amazing relationship,” she said. “It’s sanctifying, it makes you selfless, and it’s maturing in ways that no other relationship can be.”

Laura Ohlman said the idea behind the retreat isn’t to force girls or young women into marriages they don’t want, but rather to bring like-minded families together for fun and fellowship. Most of the participants interested in marriage would be 18 or older, she said.

“We’re a conservative church, but even in Kansas there aren’t many of us around,” she said, chuckling. “We thought it would be great to just spend time together, play games, have meals – and if there were some marriageable people there who might be interested in that, great.

“We’re not trying to sell a method.”

Legal marriage

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said he wasn’t familiar with the Ohlmans’ ministry or their plans to hold a retreat in Wichita.

Marriages arranged by parents would be legal in Kansas as long as the couple getting married were each at least 16, he said.

As long as the laws aren’t being broken, they’re free to have this kind of a meeting.

Marc Bennett, Sedgwick County district attorney

“You’re free to have your own religious beliefs, of course. You’re free to raise your children with your same religious beliefs,” Bennett said.

“And the government should have no role in that whatsoever, with one exception: when it starts to put the child in physical danger.”

Even people who are legally married can be prosecuted for rape if they attempt to consummate a marriage without consent, he said.

“As long as the laws aren’t being broken, they’re free to have this kind of a meeting,” Bennett said of the proposed retreat. “But if you cross the line and there’s a child who’s being forced into having sex with someone she doesn’t want to, then now you’ve gotten the attention of the state.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias