A Howard County delegate’s crusade to end child marriage in Maryland has again faced opposition this session from legislators who say they understand the importance of stopping forced marriages but do not want to deny “legitimate couples” access to the institution.
Del. Vanessa Atterbeary has sponsored House Bill 799, banning marriage for individuals under the age of 18 without exceptions. The bill passed the House of Delegates last month but the Senate version of the bill was significantly scaled back before unanimously passing there.
Current law allows a 16- or 17-year-old to get married with parental permission or proof of pregnancy. A 15-year-old can get married with both.
The amended Senate bill prohibits marriage for anyone younger than 16, doing away with the exceptions for 15-year-olds. That measure was before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
“This is what the (Senate) committee produced and I’ll leave it to your wisdom to make the necessary adjustments to the bill,” Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery and the bill’s Senate sponsor, told the committee.
But Smith made clear he was not enthusiastic about his colleagues’ changes to the bill.
“I like the House version and that’s the bill I put forward,” Smith told members of his former committee on Wednesday in a hearing that lasted about five minutes.
On Thursday night, the Judiciary Committee voted to conform the Senate bill to the House bill and Judicial Proceedings similarly amended the House bill to what they reported favorably, setting the state for a battle between the two chambers with only a few days left in the General Assembly’s session.
Atterbeary, a Democrat, has called the bill a “balancing test” between the interests of individuals who have legitimate reasons to marry before one or both of them are 18 and the interests of those who are coerced into abusive marriages with few options to avoid it or escape. The Howard County delegate did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Atterbeary sponsored similar legislation last year, which passed the House of Delegates with amendments but did not get out of a Senate committee. More than 3,200 minors were married in the state between 2000 and 2015; of those, 85 percent were young women marrying adult men, according to Atterbeary.
“You’re not prohibiting any right of anyone to get married, you’re just saying you have to wait, but you are protecting individuals from being abused in certain situations,” Atterbeary told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last month at a hearing on the Smith-sponsored Senate Bill 861.
But at committee meetings in both the House and Senate, legislators expressed concern that young people who are sincere in their desire to marry will lose that choice. On the House floor, delegates contemplated amendments and shared personal stories of the success or failure of child marriages in their own lives.
The unaltered House bill was approved by a 91-46 vote March 17.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include committee amendments to the bills made Thursday evening.
Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer Anamika Roy contributed to this report.