Underage marriage ban poised to become law


DOVER — The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed legislation that would completely ban marriage involving minors. The bill now goes to Gov. John Carney, who will sign it pending “a review by his policy and legal team,” per a spokesman.

Delaware would become the first state to prevent individuals under 18 from marrying.

The chamber broke into applause after the 21-0 vote, which followed about 30 minutes of discussion. The founder of a nonprofit that fights child marriage had tears in her eyes as it become apparent the bill would pass, and the main sponsor, Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, said afterward the measure passing is one of the most special moments during her time as a legislator.

Supporters called House Bill 337 a critically important measure that could protect children — mostly girls — from being made to marry someone against their will.

“If we can save one young lady from being put into that situation, I think it’s worth it, and if we have to have some individuals that have to wait a few months or a year to get married, so be it,” Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said.

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.”

Kim Williams

Support in the Senate was much stronger than in the House, which saw the measure squeak by solely on Democratic support.

Several lawmakers Thursday said they were swayed by the powerful testimony from Kelsey Lee, an attorney with Unchained At Last, a nonprofit organization that worked with Rep. Williams on the bill.

Minors have few legal rights in Delaware, meaning individuals have few avenues to escape forced marriages, Ms. Lee noted.

“A contract with a child is void on its face, so why would an attorney have any incentive to take that client’s contract?” she said. “Think about another instance, where 86 percent of children that marry here in Delaware are girls to adult men. The adult man has rights she does not. The house is in his name, the car is in his name, the checking account is in his name. He can get a divorce and she can’t. We are leaving girls with no protections.”

Delaware’s law on marriage age was last touched in 2007. According to the courts, 189 minors in the state were wed from 2000 to 2007, while just 16 were married from 2008 to 2012. The youngest in that timespan was 14.

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

Several senators Thursday posed questions about why the state was stepping in an area — parental rights — in which it generally does not interfere. Supporters explained that parents are often the ones forcing their children to marry, possibly because of traditional beliefs or a fear they will lose control over their children once they turn 18.

“What we see at Unchained At Last is that every instance where a person has been forced to marry, except for one and we’ve represented hundreds of clients across the U.S., the perpetrators have been the parents,” Ms. Lee said.

Majority Whip Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, noted state law exempts married couples from certain statutory rape laws, meaning intercourse between two individuals with a large age gap is completely legal even though it would be a felony if it occurred outside of marriage.

In response to questions, Ms. Lee testified that religious groups do not oppose the bill.

Multiple senators expressed hesitation about voting for the bill because their parents married underage, with Sen. Dave Sokola, D-Newark, saying he had “very mixed feelings” about supporting a measure that would have prohibited his mother and father, who have been together for 65 years, from being wed.

After making that comment, he then noted that “times have changed, and the world is a different place than it was 65 years ago.”

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