Lawmakers will continue to push for raising the minimum age for marriage in Maryland after legislation failed for the third year in a row.
Cross-filed bills to eliminate exceptions allowing minors as young as 15 to marry emerged with different amendments from the House of Delegates and Senate, and a conference committee could not reconcile the two versions.
The House version raised the minimum age to 17 but the Senate only raised it to 16.
“Ultimately, I think 18 is the best, but I wouldn’t have tinkered with it” at 17, said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard and sponsor of the House legislation. “I think it would have been a big, big victory.”
Though both chambers agreed on eliminating the option for 15-year-olds to marry — which requires the minor to be pregnant and have their parent or guardian’s permission — advocacy groups cautioned against advancing that legislation, according to Atterbeary, because of the precedent it would make nationally.
Jeanne L. Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that works with immigrant women and girls fleeing violence, said it would send a bad message to victims of forced marriage in Maryland and around the country if the state only raised the minimum age to 16, which would only have a “slight effect overall” on the number of forced marriages.
“I think that there are other states that are showing by example that in order to meaningfully address the concerns that are raised by advocates and survivors, you have to do more than Maryland was prepared to do this year,” she said.
Atterbeary and Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and sponsored the cross-filed bill, said legislation to raise the marriage age will be back next session.
“Our marriage age is just too low,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “Allowing any 15-year-old to get married is just outrageous.”
Zirkin said he agreed with the House proposal to raise the age to 17, rather than his chamber’s preference of 16.
A proposal to split the difference at 16 years, six months was rejected in conference, he added, as well as a suggestion for court approval of minors marrying if marriage is in the “best interest of the parties.”
Smoot said as neighboring states pass laws limiting marriages for minors, the Tahirih Justice Center has seen examples of young people forcibly taken to states with more favorable laws.
“As states around the country close these loopholes in their laws, Maryland will be more and more likely to be the state to which vulnerable girls might be taken to be forced into marriages that may be prohibited under their own states’ more protective laws,” she said.
Laure Ruth, legal director for the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, said legislators brought their personal experience into discussions of changing the marriage law. The Women’s Law Center supports ending forced marriages but has opposed an age requirement because it comes at the expense of women’s autonomy.
“I think people struggled with it,” she said.
Zirkin also cited the strong opinions he’s seen come out in discussions of the bill.
“People are dug in and it’s stopping the bill,” Zirkin said. “We just have to find a way to bridge the gap.”
To address concerns raised last year, Atterbeary introduced legislation this session to create a path to emancipation for minors – which would still allow them to marry – but withdrew it after it received an unfavorable report in committee.
Atterbeary said she plans to work on an emancipation bill before next year’s session and may try to get it passed before returning to the marriage-age issue.
The Women’s Law Center suggested an emancipation law might change their stance.
“I do want to give credit to Del. Atterbeary, who did respond to our request from last year for an emancipation bill that might help us to come off of our position,” Ruth said.
Emancipation was “way more complex than anyone anticipated,” she added, and all groups who will be impacted need to be involved in drafting future legislation.
“I think there’s just a lot, a lot of people that need to be at the table to get it right,” she said. “The Women’s Law Center position is we can’t agree to any limitations in the marriage bill until emancipation is fixed.”
Some states that did not have emancipation statutes, such as Kentucky, passed bills raising the marriage age but tied in an emancipation provision that made sure minors appeared before a judge and proved themselves to be mature and capable before they were permitted to marry, according to Smoot.
“I do think we are still looking at a possibility for progress in Maryland next year but I do have to conclude that this year was incredibly disappointing,” she said.