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In child marriage debate, delegates get personal

Del. William G. Folden joined the military at age 17, leaving behind his high school sweetheart. Despite feeling “fearless,” at the time, he did not propose. More than 25 years later, he’s glad he did not tie the knot.

“When you’re 17, young love is great,” the Frederick County Republican told his fellow delegates Friday. “I can still remember my girlfriend of 17. Love her to death. Thank goodness I didn’t marry her.”

Folden was one of many lawmakers sharing stories of love – and some regret – as the House debated a bill to prohibit child marriage in Maryland under any circumstances.

House Bill 799 would eliminate current provisions that allow a 16- or 17-year-old to get married with parental permission or proof of pregnancy. A 15-year-old currently can get married with both.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, is sponsoring a bill that would eliminate current provisions in Maryland law that allow a 16- or 17-year-old to get married with parental permission or proof of pregnancy. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, is sponsoring a bill that would eliminate current provisions in Maryland law that allow a 16- or 17-year-old to get married with parental permission or proof of pregnancy. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The bill received a favorable report by the House Judiciary Committee and passed second reading last week. It was approved by the House on Monday night by a 95-42 vote.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation is about child marriage, which leads to divorce, lack of financial stability and can be used for human trafficking. New Jersey just passed a similar, bright-line rule on marriage age, and bills in other states are pending, she said.

Folden said imminent deployment and a pregnancy are not the reasons to get married.

“When you’re that age, you’re not prepared to take on the struggles that come along in addition to having a child at that age,” he said.

Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, got married at 17 to his high school sweetheart prior to military deployment. The marriage was annulled by the end of his first tour of duty.

Wilson, now the father of three daughters, said “could not imagine” allowing his 16-year-old to get married.

“This is 2017, this is not 1965,” he said.

Del. Robert B. Long, R-Baltimore County, also was married at age 17. But 43 years later, he and his wife have four children together.

“It is tough when you’re 17, believe me, but we made it,” he said.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George’s, said it is common sense to prohibit marriage before the age of majority.

“Children should not get married,” he said. “There’s a lot of learning, a lot of growing, a lot of maturing that they’re going to have to do in their life and to allow them to make that kind of decision when they’re still young is a mistake on our part.”

After researching child marriage, House Judiciary Vice Chair Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery County, said she came to believe the bill, which was introduced last year but did not make it out of committee, was the right direction for Maryland.

“This isn’t complicated,” said Dumais, a family law attorney. “This is just making a bright-line rule saying, ‘We think you need to be 18 when you get married,’ and I think you’re going to see more and more states doing that.”

The Women’s Law Center expressed concern at the committee hearing last month that the legislation, which is aimed at eradicating forced marriages, did so at the expense of women’s autonomy.

“Child marriage is the red herring here and it’s forced marriages that are really the problem,” executive director Michelle Siri told the committee.


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