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Marriage-age debate may be addressed by emancipation bill

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary. (File Photo)

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary. (File photo)

Maryland lawmakers are considering the creation of an emancipation process for 16 and 17 year olds that also aims to curb marriage by minors, the subject of debate in recent legislative sessions.

House Bill 1147 creates a process for minors to petition the court to recognize them as legal adults. The bill, while repealing provisions in the current law that allows 15 and 16 year olds to marry, would allow emancipated 17 year olds to wed.

The measure, sponsored by Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, passed the House of Delegates overwhelmingly earlier this month by a vote of 136-4 and was before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday.

Current law allows a 16 or 17 year old to get married with parental permission or proof of pregnancy. A 15 year old can marry with both. Atterbeary has introduced bills to do away with those exceptions every year since 2016.

Maryland has no formal emancipation process. Atterbeary said that though individuals as young as 15 can marry, Maryland law is unclear about whether they can exercise other legal rights, such as file for divorce from their marriages.

Advocates have argued that marriages involving minors are usually between an underage woman and an older man and can result from  force or coercion.

“HB 1147 responds to a serious problem with current law, which has no effective safeguards to protect children from potentially lifelong, devastating harm,” the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that works with immigrant women and girls fleeing violence, said in written testimony.

Atterbeary told the Judicial Proceedings Committee Wednesday that there were many reasons minors may want to become legal adults, including a desire to escape abusive homes or to manage their own finances. She said she hoped the law would prevent forced marriages for minors but would also bring benefits to mature adolescents.

“For a variety of reasons, I thought this would be good for the state of Maryland,” Atterbeary said.

House Bill 1147 provides that 16 or 17 year olds can petition the court for emancipation and lists the things they must prove, including the ability to live independently, an understanding of the consequences of emancipation, and their understanding that emancipation is in their best interest. Parents or guardians are notified of the petition and the minor is appointed an attorney.

Emancipated minors would still be subject to juvenile criminal law, and their rights pertaining to voting and purchasing alcohol and tobacco would not change. They would also be required to stay in school.

Atterbeary introduced an emancipation bill last year along with a bill to eliminate marriage by individuals younger than 18 unless they were emancipated. Though the concept received support, legislators wanted more time to deliberate, Atterbeary said.

Including emancipation in the discussion of “child marriage” was an attempt to sway groups such as the Women’s Law Center and NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, which objected to a flat underage ban on the grounds of women’s autonomy and right to choose to marry.

The groups support House Bill 1147 and asked that it be amended to allow emancipated 16 year olds to marry as well.

“We believe if a 16 year old can prove that individual is self-sufficient, able to manage one’s own affairs without a parent or legal guardian, then they should have the right to access legal resources and contracts as an adult, and that includes the right to marry,” NARAL Executive Director Diana Philip said at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on March 7.

The House did not act on the groups’ requested amendment.

Atterbeary said the Maryland Judiciary opposes the bill because it says the court cannot afford to pay for appointed counsel for minors seeking emancipation. But Atterbeary said Virginia, which passed a law barring marriage for unemancipated minors in 2016, has seen only 80 individuals seek emancipation.

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