Child marriage ban proposal moves to House

DOVER — A House committee sent to the full chamber a bill that would ban marriage involving anyone under 18, one step in a process that could make Delaware the first state to entirely ban juvenile marriage.

House Bill 337 would prevent any marriage where at least one of the parties is 17 or younger, a change from current state law, which technically does not have a minimum age. While Delaware requires individuals to be at least 18 to get married, it allows Family Court judges to grant exceptions.

A judge’s decision is based on “the best interests of the minor seeking to be married; the wishes of the minor and such minor’s parents or legal guardians; the mental and physical health of the individuals to be married; the criminal history of the individuals seeking to be married; whether the proposed marriage would violate any Delaware laws; and such other information which the Court deems appropriate.”

Current marriages where at least one of the partners is underage or got married as a minor and the couple did not confirm their marriage once both spouses were at least 18 would be annulled.

After about 30 minutes of discussion, the bill was released from the House Health & Human Development Committee, with only Rep. Joe Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley, voting against it.

Rep. Miro said he supports part of the measure but feels the bill is too broad and could potentially prevent an individual entering the military from marrying their sweetheart or lead to more teenagers getting abortions.

“I cannot support banning marriage, period,” he said.

Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Unchained At Last, which fights forced marriages, said a wait of a few months is a small price to pay for preventing teenagers and children from being made to wed against their will.

Juveniles — generally girls and sometimes younger than 13 — pushed into legal unions often have no way to escape. They can be raped and abused by their spouses and sometimes commit suicide out of desperation, advocates for the bill said.

“We know that typically when a child is forced to marry, the perpetrators are the parents, so having the parents petition the court is further endangering children,” Ms. Reiss said, noting juvenile brides or grooms often avoid speaking up in front of judges for fear of punishment from parents.

The Delaware General Assembly made the minimum marriage age 18 for males and 16 for females in 1921, although parental permission was required for females younger than 18 and males younger than 21. Legislators made changes over the year, most recently in 2007, when they passed the current law.
According to Unchained At Last, 205 Delaware minors were married between 2000 and 2012, with the youngest being 14.

A May report from the Pew Charitable Trusts says Delaware clerks of the peace received about 60 marriage requests involving minors per year before the 2007 change. Just 16 have been submitted since, the Pew Charitable Trusts says.

According to the Delaware courts, 13 petitions for marriage involving an underage individual were submitted over the past three fiscal years, with eight being granted. Only one of those cases lists the ages of both parties as younger than 18.

The measure would not affect the age of consent. Delaware law allows individuals older than 11 but younger than 16 to have sex with someone no more than four years older. Sixteen-and 17-year-olds cannot have sex with anyone older than 29 unless they are married, an exemption that would be eliminated by the bill.

Virginia and Texas prohibit individuals younger than 18 from getting married unless they are emancipated. In 2017, then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill completely banning marriage involving minors.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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