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Proponents say updating marriage laws, which in many states are more than a century old, will help protect children from being pushed into marriages by parents and predators.
Most Americans think of child marriage as a vestige of a bygone era. And yet in every state, people under 18 are allowed to marry.
Some states set minimum ages for brides and grooms — sometimes as low as 13 or 14 — and usually require the permission of a parent, judge, or both before a minor can wed. But laws in about half the states allow children of any age to marry, as long as they receive the proper permission.
That may be changing. This year legislators in 10 states have introduced bills to raise the marriage age. Proponents say updating marriage laws, which in many states are more than a century old, will help protect children from being pushed into marriages by parents and predators. Some lawmakers, disturbed by instances of pregnant girls heading to the courthouse to marry older men, argue that marriage licenses should not be given to men who have committed statutory rape.
Young brides who say they were forced down the aisle are backing the efforts, as are justices of the peace who say current law requires them to approve marriages between young girls and older men.
“Fourteen was just ridiculous,” said New York Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Democrat who sponsored a bill this year that would align the age for marriage with the state’s age of sexual consent, 17. Minors still would need parental and judicial permission to marry.
Proponents of raising the marriage age had some success in Virginia, where girls under 16 were permitted to marry if they were pregnant. A law enacted last year requires 16- and 17-year-olds to be given adult status from a court before they can marry.
But Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill Thursday that would have made New Jersey the first state to outlaw marriage for anyone under 18. Under state law, people under 18 need parental permission to marry, and those under 16 must also have a judge’s consent.
In California, a Senate bill to eliminate the process that allows those under 18 to marry was weakened in committee this week after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California said the measure unnecessarily intruded on the right to marry. The current version of the bill would require Family Court Services to interview both parties and a parent to ensure no one was being coerced to marry.
Kevin Baker, legislative director for the ACLU of California, said the group was concerned about forced marriage, “but we wanted to make sure we weren’t also sweeping in voluntary marriages.”
And in New Hampshire, where girls as young as 13 and boys as young 14 are permitted to marry with parental consent and a judge’s approval, legislators in March voted down a bill to raise the marriage age to 18. Critics said judges should be able to approve young marriages in exceptional circumstances, such as a pregnancy or in cases when someone is joining the military.
“It’s not that there’s a bunch of screwball legislators wanting 13-year-olds to get married,” said New Hampshire state Rep. David Bates, a Republican who voted against the bill. “I don’t think there’s any justifiable rationale to absolutely prohibit someone in those situations from getting that judicial waiver.”
In Missouri, where children as young as 15 can get married with a parent’s permission, state Rep. Jean Evans, a Republican, introduced a bill to raise the marriage age after hearing that counties close to the state’s borders were seeing more young women come in to get married. In one 2016 case, an Idaho man drove his 15-year-old daughter to Missouri so she could marry the 25-year-old man who had impregnated her. In 2014, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 158 16- and 17-year-olds and 23 children who were 15 or younger got married in Missouri, according to the state.
Her bill, passed by the House in March, would allow those under 18 to get married only after a judge approves it and determines there is no evidence of coercion. Those under 17 would not be able to marry someone older than 20, a relationship that could violate the state’s statutory rape law.
Jeanne Smoot with the Tahirih Justice Center, a gender equality group that has pushed legislation in several states, including New Hampshire, to raise the marriage age to 18, said people who want to marry someone young look for nearby states with looser laws where perhaps only one parent’s signature is required or where they may not have to face a judge.
“Certainly that’s the kind of destination wedding reputation no state should want, and yet they already have it,” Smoot said.
Child marriages represent a small share of total marriages in the U.S., but still number in the tens of thousands. Nearly 60,000 15- to 17-year-olds, nearly five out of every 1,000, were in marriages in 2014.
Those who marry as children face a unique set of potential legal complications, particularly if they want to leave the marriage. In some states, people under 18 are not permitted to get divorced. Most domestic violence shelters won’t accept people under 18. And because they are legally still children, those who try to escape a marriage may be returned by social services to the parents who approved the marriage in the first place.
In many states, women who were married as young girls have been leading advocates for the bills.
Trevicia Williams said she was 14 when her mother picked her up from school and took her to a Houston courthouse to marry a 26-year-old man. Her husband was the nephew of the head of the church her family attended and had recently gotten out of prison.
“It was my mom’s way of getting rid of me to be honest, of getting rid of her problems. She saw the responsibility of raising children to be so overwhelming,” Williams, 47, said. “When he hit me the first time I called my mom and asked if I could come home and she said, ‘No.’ ”
Williams is pushing for a bill passed by the Texas Senate this month that would bar people under 18 from getting married, except for those who are emancipated, or given adult status, by a court. In Texas, which has the second- highest rate for teen marriage in the country (6.9 of every 1,000 15- to 17-year-olds, second only to West Virginia’s 7.1 per 1,000), current state law allows children of any age to get married if they get a judge’s permission.
Much of the debate centers around whether adolescents are mature enough to make decisions about their future, and whether parents and judges can be trusted to advise them.
Girls who get married before they turn 18 are a diverse group: pregnant teens who either want to or are pressured to raise their child within wedlock; girls from strict religious communities or social backgrounds in which arranged marriages at a young age is common; girls with an abusive home life whose parents struggle to care for them.
“It’s definitely not one group, one religion, one ethnicity,” said Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained At Last, a New Jersey-based group that helps young women escape marriages that have been arranged or coerced.
“The one thread we see is they’re mostly female,” said Reiss, who was raised in a Hasidic Jewish community in New Jersey and married at 19 to a man chosen by her parents. She gathered marriage data from 38 states and found that only 15 percent of child marriages included a boy.
And though the girls come from different backgrounds, they often arrive at similar outcomes. Research shows young marriage routinely ends in divorce—those who marry under 18 have a 70 percent chance of getting a divorce compared to about 50 percent in the general population—and married girls are less likely to continue their education.
New Jersey state Assemblywoman Nancy Muñoz, a Republican who sponsored the bill there, said child marriage should be outlawed because of the many ways it harms girls.
“It’s the patterns of domestic violence, the pattern of poverty, failure to continue education, all the signs for advancement in our society are affected by this,” she said.
Many people in favor of raising the marriage age also view current law as a way for predators to escape the consequences of having sex with young girls.
“There are still a lot of kids under 16 and pregnant who are showing up to get married and rather than someone saying, ‘We should be arresting this guy for statutory rape,’ they’d say ‘We should give them a marriage license,’ ” said Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who sponsored the law that raised the state’s age to marry.
But attempts to raise the marriage age have also faced opposition from legislators who argue that adolescents, with their parents’ help, can make responsible decisions about whom to marry, and that teens facing adult consequences should be able to get married.
Those joining the military may want to marry to ensure a significant other receives spousal benefits. They may even be a minor themselves—people can join the military at 17 with parental permission.
And, some argue, teens facing pregnancy should be able to marry if they want to.
“It’d be ridiculous to say they can’t get married and force children to be born out of wedlock,” said Missouri state Rep. Bill White, a Republican. He voted in favor of Missouri’s bill once it allowed emancipated minors to marry.
But many women who got married at a young age come to realize they made a mistake.
Donna, who asked that her last name not be used, sought and received her mother’s blessing to marry a 30-year-old in 2000, when she was just 16. She and her mother, along with the man who is now her ex-husband, traveled to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where he believed they would face less scrutiny. The law there allows 16-year-olds to marry with parental permission.
But she regretted the marriage within months.
Now 33, Donna said teens don’t have the maturity to make such big decisions. And parents can’t always be trusted to act in their child’s best interest.
“I was definitely not happy with the decision early on and was very angry that my mother had let it happen. I realized after it became abusive that she should’ve seen these signs,” Donna said. “She should’ve stopped it to begin with.”
Judges and Justices of the Peace
Many of the proposals to put tighter controls on marriage, like those in Missouri and New York, give judges a greater role in reviewing marriage petitions.
Ken Boulden, a clerk of the peace in Wilmington, Delaware, said judicial review has had a deterrent effect there. He pushed to change the law 10 years ago, after seeing a steady stream of young girls coming in with their parents to marry older men. At the time, girls under 16 could get married in the state if they were pregnant.
But one day, when a terrified pregnant girl who had just turned 14 showed up to get a marriage license with her mother and the 27-year-old who had impregnated her, Boulden said something clicked for him.
When the couple returned after the 48-hour waiting period to get a marriage license, the authorities were waiting to arrest the man for statutory rape.
The episode prompted Boulden to begin lobbying to change what he viewed as an archaic law. Changes made in 2007 require minors who want to marry to get permission from a judge first.
Before the law was changed, clerks got about 60 marriage requests a year for minors. But since the law changed, they’ve had a total of just 16, Boulden said.
But Reiss said judicial review doesn’t always work. Judges have already approved marriages of very young children, she said. In many states, they aren’t required to make sure a child is not being coerced, and they may have no legal basis for saying no.
“The fault is not on the judges, it’s on the law, and the law needs to change,” she said.