House approves ban on underage marriages


DOVER — The Delaware House of Representatives passed a measure Thursday that would prohibit marriage involving minors, with the bill moving forward solely on Democratic support. House Bill 337 now goes to the Senate.

Twenty-three members supported it in the House, while 11 voted against, six abstained and one was absent. Rep. Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington, went “not voting,” making him the only Democrat present not to vote in favor.

The bill, which was released from a House committee Wednesday, would make Delaware the first state to completely ban marriages involving anyone under 18.

Delaware generally requires would-be spouses to be at least 18, but it does allow exceptions.

A Family Court judge can grant special dispensation to an underage individual, with the decision 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.”

Under House Bill 337, 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.

The measure passed over the objection of Republicans, who asked the main sponsor to hold the bill so a compromise could be reached.

“Truly the problem you’re trying to solve is a valid problem, and I think everybody on this side agrees with that but the unintended consequences and a lot of happy environments with families’ blessings that have worked are going to be unfortunately affected,” Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, said.

Republicans cited hypothetical cases of underage individuals hoping to get married before entering the military or dying from a terminal illness as arguments for amending the bill, and several referenced long-lasting unions of family members or friends who were married before age 18.

But Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, repeatedly shot down requests to table the bill for the time being, defending her decision by saying she had made a commitment to the children of Delaware.

Kim Williams

“There are cases where underage children have married adults, and they have no protection,” Rep. Williams said. “If there’s an abuse, if they call the police, they go to domestic shelters, but no one will take them. They can’t get a credit card, they can’t get a job, they can’t vote, they have no protections. … If one child is protected from this, it is worth it.”

Several opponents noted parental permission is required for a minor to get married, but Rep. Williams responded that some juveniles are forced into marriage and lie to judges to spare themselves from abuse that otherwise would occur from parents or the prospective spouse.

“We’re assuming everyone’s doing things for the right reasons,” she said.

Some parents may force their child to get married before age 18 to get him or her off their hands or because of their traditional beliefs, she said. In rare instances, parents may even sell their child.

Delaware’s law on marriage age was last touched in 2007. According to the courts, 189 minors were wed from 2000 to 2007, while just 16 were married from 2008 to 2012.

The youngest individual married in Delaware from 2000 to 2012 was 14.

Although Virginia and Texas prohibit individuals younger than 18 from getting married unless they are emancipated, no state completely forbids minors from marrying. The New Jersey Legislature approved a measure banning underage unions in 2017, but it was vetoed by then Gov. Chris Christie.

Gov. John Carney’s office said only that he is following discussions on the bill.

Representatives discussed the bill for 45 minutes Thursday, consisting mostly of back and forth between Republicans and Rep. Williams.

Pointing to a proposed regulation that would allow students to self-identify their gender or race, Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, accused supporters of being hypocritical.

By passing the measure, lawmakers are overriding parental rights, he said.

“There is an extra layer of protection written into the code, which this bill wipes out, by the way,” Rep. Collins argued. “This bill lines out your ability to go to Family Court. It lines out the parents’ ability to have a part in the decision.

“We’re talking about us, sitting here, with zero knowledge of someone who’s going to do this 10 or 15 years from now, making a blanket decision saying you can’t even go to court to request permission. That is not what America is about.”

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