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Md. House preliminarily approves bill to raise minimum marriage age to 17

Key differences between House and Senate legislation remain to be ironed out

Del. Emily Shetty, D-Montgomery, is one of the sponsors of HB 83. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The House of Delegates on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to legislation that would raise the minimum age for marriage in Maryland from 15 to 17.

The House could vote as early as this week to approve the matrimonial measure and create a conflict with the Senate, which passed a bill last month that would also prohibit anyone under age 17 from marrying but contains different restrictions.

Unlike the Senate measure, House Bill 83 would prohibit 17-year-olds from marrying someone more than four years their elder. The House bill would also require the 17-year-old to assure a judge that he or she is getting married voluntarily and not under duress.

By contrast, Senate Bill 29 would require the 17-year-old to be either an expectant parent or have a parent’s or guardian’s consent to marry.

Both bills would enable 17-year-olds to get a divorce without parental or judicial consent.

If the House passes HB 83 as expected, each bill will be considered by the opposite chamber and potentially by a conference committee of senators and delegates to hammer out remaining differences between the measures in hope of gaining final passage of the legislation before the General Assembly session ends at 12 a.m. April 12.

Del. Emily Shetty, D-Montgomery and a sponsor of HB 83, said during House floor debate Tuesday that the four-year age difference “mirrors existing statutory rape law so that marriage does not become an end run to statutory rape.”

Shetty added that the judicial oversight ensures that “young people are not forced into marriage, that they know what they are getting into.”

“Do any of us know?” interjected Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Harford and Baltimore counties. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist that.”

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 and House bills would strip 15- and 16-years-olds of the right to marry.

During the House debate, Szeliga voiced concern about prohibiting 16-year-olds from marrying. She noted that 16 is Maryland’s age of sexual consent and gave the example of a pregnant 16-year-old girl wanting to marry the expectant father who is in the military.

“By forbidding this (marriage) you are forbidding them the opportunity to have a family, for her to receive those military benefits as a military spouse,” Szeliga said.

Shetty responded that the House Judiciary Committee, in considering the legislation, settled on 17 as the minimum age for marriage.

“Nothing is prohibiting a 16-year-old who is pregnant later to get married when she becomes 17,” Shetty said. “It was the will of the committee.”

Szeliga noted that HB 83 devotes pages to marriage but only about a paragraph to divorce. Thus, the measure “looks like a lengthy marriage and a quickie divorce,” Szeliga said.

Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard, is chief sponsor of HB 83.

The House’s brief discussion of its bill before the voice vote of preliminary approval stood in stark contrast to the Senate’s intense debate over Sen. Mary Washington’s ultimately unsuccessful amendment to preserve marriage for 16-year-olds if they are expectant parents.

In opposition to the amendment, Sen. Sarah K. 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 and chief sponsor of SB 29.

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,” said Washington, D-Baltimore city. “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.”

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.”

The Senate rejected Washington’s amendment on a 16-28 vote before passing SB 29 by a vote of 45-0.