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Md. Senate passes bill to raise minimum marriage age to 17

Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth, chief sponsor of Senate Bill 29, told fellow senators that her measure falls short of the 18-year-old marriage minimum she would prefer but that 17 “represents the best balance that we can find.” (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The Senate passed legislation Monday night to raise the minimum age for marriage in Maryland from 15 to 17.

With the Senate’s 45-0 vote, attention shifts to the House of Delegates where similar legislation awaits consideration.

Under current law, 15-year-olds may marry if they are expectant parents and have the consent of a parent or guardian. Sixteen and 17-year-olds can get married if they are expectant parents or have a parent’s or guardian’s consent.

The Senate-passed bill would strip 15- and 16-year-olds of the right to marry while continuing to allow 17-year-olds  to wed if they are expectant parents or have a guardian’s or parent’s consent.

The legislation marks a compromise between legislators who have sought over the past seven General Assembly sessions to set 18 – the age of adulthood — as the minimum for marriage and those who have supported retaining a younger age in cases of expectant parents.

Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth, chief sponsor of Senate Bill 29, told fellow senators that her measure falls short of the 18-year-old marriage minimum she would prefer but that 17 “represents the best balance that we can find.”

The Senate passed SB 29 after last week’s defeat by a 28-16 vote of Sen. Mary Washington’s proposed amendment to retain the right of 16-year-olds to marry if they are expectant parents.

“We should be cautious when we’re taking away a right,” Washington said in defense of her proposal, which had the strong support of Sen. Jill P. Carter, a fellow Baltimore Democrat.

Carter told her colleagues she was “plagued by the hypocrisy” of saying 16-year-olds are too young to get married and start families while Maryland law permits 14-years-olds charged with violent crimes to be tried automatically as adults.

“I have a real hesitation about saying that a 16-year-old, a 16-and-a-half year old, who is pregnant or who has had a child, who desires to be married to the father of that child is prohibited under law from marriage,” Carter said.

“Why on earth would we foreclose that (marriage) option from someone that legitimately wants to be married to the person that they have a child with? It just doesn’t make any sense and it goes too far.”

In response, Elfreth cited social science data that girls who marry before age 18 are more likely to fall into poverty and become victims of domestic violence.

“This is a public health issue, and I urge the body to reject the amendment,” said Elfreth, D-Anne Arundel.

But Washington, in defense of her amendment, said marriages of pregnant 16-year-olds are not to blame.

“Unfortunately, all of the social ills associated with adolescent pregnancy are also about poverty, they’re about homelessness, they are about our system — our system’s inability to provide the educational system, the training system, the social supports,” Washington said. “As much as we would like to think so, passing this bill that keeps an individual who is 16 from having a child in the context of marriage is not going to fix any of those problems.”

But several senators, while sympathetic to Washington’s concerns, called 17 a good compromise.

Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, called himself “a traditionalist” who believes teenagers “ought to get married” if they are expecting a child but said the proposed minimum age of 17 for marriage is a valid middle ground.

“We all know that that stigma (of unwed teenage parents) is long gone in our society,” Cassilly said. “It’s really a practical matter here; that’s how I look at it now.”

Sen. Michael J. Hough, R- Frederick and Carroll, said he has favored permitting 16-year-old expectant parents to marry but that 17 “does put in place a good balance.”

Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard County, is chief sponsor of the cross-filed House Bill 83.