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Debate over ‘child marriage’ returns to General Assembly

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

ANNAPOLIS — Advocates returned to the State House on Thursday to renew their push to change a law allowing individuals as young as 15 to be married in Maryland, but civil and women’s rights groups echoed objections from the 2017 session that a flat-out ban is too restricting.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, put forth the same bill she brought last year, which prohibits marriage by anyone under the age of 18 with no exceptions. 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.

Atterbeary told the House Judiciary Committee there are stories of “romanticized teen love” but also stories of young people, particularly young women, being forced into unwanted marriages which can take decades to escape and have lifelong impacts.

Vivian Hamilton, a William & Mary School of Law professor who has studied the effects of child marriage, said there are “high social costs” of early marriage even when minors enter them voluntarily, and the costs “fall disproportionately on women and children.”

Women who are married before they are 18 are more likely to drop out of high school, not continue their education, live in poverty, and develop mental and physical health issues, she said. The marriages are also much more likely to end in divorce.

“These rates of marital failure hold even when parents consent to those minors’ marriages and they hold even when judges consent,” Hamilton said. “Every year of delay reduces the odds of divorce.”

Jeanne L. Smoot, senior council for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that works with immigrant women and girls fleeing violence, said Maryland is “an enabler of exploitation.

Service providers are limited in their ability to provide assistance to minors even if they are trying to leave an abusive relationship, Smoot said. Maryland law does not permit allow minors to file for divorce or annulment.

“To us, a 17-year-old when we’re trying to help her — or him — is treated by most everyone else we’re dealing with the same as a 13-year-old,” she said.

There are options available to help an 18-year-old leave an unwanted marriage, according to Unchained at Last founder Fraidy Reiss, such as domestic violence shelters and legal representation, but “almost all those avenues are closed to us when a 17 year old reaches out to us or younger.”

Maturity and autonomy

But opponents to the bill say the bright line proposal protects youth facing forced marriage at the expense of those who have made a mature decision with good reasons to enter marriage.

The bill “pits two reproductive justice issues against one another,” NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland Executive Director Diana Philip testified: eliminating child marriage and ensuring individuals have the freedom to marry.

“I think that we miss sometimes the capacity for agency, autonomy, maturity,” Philip said, citing underage clients she has represented in family law matters who are mature and capable.

Pregnant young women can decide without coercion to form a family for insurance and housing benefits and other reasons, she added.

“Not every young person is, thankfully, a victim or being coerced by their parents into a relationship they do not want,” she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed written opposition to the bill, citing the “insurmountable barriers” it imposes on the fundamental right to marriage.

Del. Pamela E. Queen, D-Montgomery, questioned referring to 16- and 17-year-olds as “children” when they are old enough to make other important choices.

“Would we tell a 17-year-old she can’t take birth control?” she asked. “Would we tell a 17-year-old she can’t have an abortion? Why should we tell a 17 year old she can’t get married?”

Several delegates also raised religious concerns, noting that it is still a practice in some cultures and faiths to marry young.

Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington, suggested the proposed law violates the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, citing the Amish community where some juveniles are married and remain married.

Emancipation option

Several delegates raised the issue of emancipation as a way for mature juveniles to become adults and marry before they reach 18. Maryland does not have a formal emancipation process but Atterbeary said she has a bill in drafting currently to create one.

Virginia’s law banning marriage for those younger than 18 creates an exception for emancipated individuals but refers to an already-existing section of the law for emancipation proceedings. Some other states that have passed child marriage bills also have emancipation provisions.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and the committee’s vice chair, said while she co-sponsored the bill, “the bright lines are worrisome” and she would like to see an emancipation option.

The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault supports the bill with an amendment to allow minors to be emancipated.

“I’m troubled by the use of the word children and adult in some of the testimony,” said Lisae C. Jordan, the group’s executive director. “We’re not talking about toddlers here, we are talking about older teens.”

The legislation, House Bill 191, is cross-filed with Senate Bill 670. No hearing has been scheduled on the Senate Bill.

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