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House, Senate pass conflicting bills to raise minimum marriage age to 17

Steve Lash//March 17, 2022

House, Senate pass conflicting bills to raise minimum marriage age to 17

By Steve Lash

//March 17, 2022

The House of Delegates and Senate have passed conflicting legislation to raise the minimum age for marriage in Maryland from 15 to 17.

The House voted 100-35 on Wednesday for a measure that would prohibit 17-year-olds from marrying someone more than four years their elder. House Bill 83 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, which senators approved last month, would require the 17-year-old to be either an expectant parent or have a parent’s or guardian’s consent to marry.

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

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 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?” asked 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 may get married if they are expectant parents or have a parent’s or guardian’s consent.

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

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

During the House debate, Shetty said that “nothing is prohibiting a 16-year-old who is pregnant later to get married when she becomes 17.”

But Szeliga voiced concern about prohibiting 16-year-olds from marrying. She noted that 16 is Maryland’s age of sexual consent.

“I got married when I was 18,” Szeliga said. “Certainly, getting married at 16 is harder, and so we’re not encouraging that. But should a young woman find herself pregnant, I think we have to do everything we can to help her and her husband make a go of a family, providing a mom and a dad for that child, and for that reason I am going to be voting against this bill.”

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

The House’s brief debate over the bill stood in stark contrast to the Senate’s intense discussion 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.


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