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Differing marriage-age bills appear bound for conference

Both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly have passed legislation eliminating exceptions to state law allowing 15-year-olds to marry, but differences over whether the new minimum age should be 16 or 17 mean the cross-filed bills are likely headed for a conference committee.

The proposed bills eliminated all exceptions to Maryland’s minimum marriage age of 18 but were both amended in committee.

The House of Delegates approved House Bill 191 after amendments were added to ban marriage for anyone younger than 17. The Senate did the same for Senate Bill 670 but only raised the minimum age to 16.

The Senate’s bill on Tuesday was before the House Judiciary Committee, where sponsor Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said his committee considered several amendments but could only agree to raise the minimum possible marriage age to 16.

“The only thing that got any consensus was making sure that 15-year-olds could not marry,” he said. “That was the only thing that got enough votes but I was with Del. (Vanessa) Atterbeary and I guess we’re going to have to go to conference.”

Zirkin said he expects the bills will be sent to a conference committee. Atterbeary, D-Howard and sponsor of the House bill, said last month she expected a conference committee when she learned of the differing versions of the bills.

The Senate bill maintains the requirement the minor either be pregnant or have their parent or guardian’s permission while the House bill, as approved by the chamber, does not contain those conditions. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee sent the House bill to the floor Thursday after amending it to match its own version. It passed second reading Tuesday.

Several states have recently passed laws restricting marriage of underage individuals. Florida and Kentucky, for example, passed bills this year banning marriage for anyone younger than 17.

Opponents to raising the marriage age, including civil and women’s rights groups, argue a flat-out ban is too restricting and discounts the maturity and autonomy of minors. They also object to Maryland’s lack of a path to emancipation, which Atterbeary introduced a bill to remedy this session but withdrew it after an unfavorable committee report.

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