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Md. legislation seeks to eliminate exceptions to marriage age

(Flickr / Danielle Madeley / CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Flickr / Danielle Madeley / CC BY-SA 2.0)

A bill to outlaw marriage for anyone under the age of 18 without exceptions was reintroduced in the General Assembly this year, making Maryland part of a national movement to outlaw child marriage under any circumstances.

Current law permits a 16- or 17-year-old to get married with parental permission or proof of pregnancy; both are required for a 15-year-old to get married. House Bill 799, scheduled to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, would remove those options.

“There is a movement afoot to try to go around and change these laws across the country,” said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, the lead sponsor of the bill. Similar legislation has been introduced in New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York.

Atterbeary introduced legislation last year to prohibit individuals under 18 from marrying after reading an article about child marriage and researching the issue. The bill was amended to still allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry after a judge conducts a hearing to determine if the juvenile is being coerced. It passed the House but ultimately died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

This year, Atterbeary said, she does not want to compromise because she believes there are no circumstances where a juvenile should get married.

“We make our kids wait to do a lot of things until they’re 18: vote, serve in the military, enter into a contract,” she said. “This year, I’m not going to accept any amendments.”

Almost every member of the House Judiciary Committee signed on to co-sponsor Atterbeary’s bill, which was cross-filed with Atterbeary and the bill was cross-filed in the Senate. When she approached her colleagues for support, Atterbeary said many didn’t know the current law.

“The current statute is not common knowledge,” she said.

The information Atterbeary compiled ahead of last year’s hearing showed the majority of child marriages in Maryland between 2004 and 2014 were teenage girls marrying much older men. In 2014, 76 individuals between the ages of 15 and 17 were married in the state.

“Just technically, the age of sexual consent in Maryland is 16, so, technically, if you have someone who is 15 marrying someone, there’s a statutory rape situation,” she said. “This is just gross.”

Religious objections

Last year’s amendment permitting 16- and 17-year-olds to marry was a concession to individuals who argued for religious reasons that a pregnant girl should be married, according to Atterbeary.

One of those individuals was the chairman of Atterbeary’s committee, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s.

“He is of the belief where if you are pregnant, you should get married,” Atterbeary said. “That’s just his way of thinking.”

To sway opponents of the bill, Atterbeary said she reached out to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The bill falls in line with the Catholic Church’s anti-human trafficking campaign – young girls can be married off for financial reasons then forced into prostitution – and Archbishop William E. Lori expressed support for prohibiting child marriage.

“I don’t know that they’re going to come and testify but I’m certainly trying to get them to come and speak to my chairman,” Atterbeary said.

Vallario was unavailable for comment for this story.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which will hear cross-filed Senate Bill 861 next month, is also interested in the bill. Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and the committee’s chair, wants a full hearing on the issue, according to Atterbeary.

The lead sponsor of the Senate bill is Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery.

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