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General Assembly passes bill to raise minimum marriage age to 17

The effort to raise the minimum age for marriage has been a seven-year struggle for Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The General Assembly on Monday passed legislation to raise the minimum age for marriage in Maryland from 15 to 17.

The measure, headed to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk, would require the 17-year-old to assure a judge that he or she is getting married voluntarily and not under duress.

Sponsors of the bill said the judicial oversight ensures that young people are not forced into marriage, sponsors said.

The measure, House Bill 83, would enable 17-year-olds to get a divorce without parental or judicial consent.

The Senate passed the measure 47-0 on Monday. The House of Delegates approved the bill 113-15 on Saturday.

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. The legislation headed the governor would strip 15- and 16-years-olds of the right to marry.

The effort to raise the minimum age for marriage has been a seven-year struggle for Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard.

Atterbeary did not immediately respond Monday to a text message seeking comment on the General Assembly’s passage of the legislation she has long championed.

The bid to raise the age to 17 passed this year despite strong opposition from some lawmakers, particularly Sen. Mary Washington, who tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill 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 the cross-filed Senate Bill 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.

On the House side, Del. Kathy Szeliga voiced concern about prohibiting 16-year-olds from marrying. She noted that 16 is Maryland’s age of sexual consent, but did not offer an amendment.

“I got married when I was 18,” said Szeliga, R-Harford and Baltimore counties. “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. Emily Shetty, D-Montgomery and a sponsor of HB 83, said that “nothing is prohibiting a 16-year-old who is pregnant later to get married when she becomes 17.”