'We don't want our girls to get married': Push to raise wedding age to 18 gains momentum

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS — An effort to raise Minnesota’s legal marriage age to 18 without exception appears to be gaining traction at the state Capitol this year.

Existing state law allows 16- and 17-year-olds in the state to wed with permission from a parent and a judge’s approval. But some lawmakers want to fully ban the practice for anyone under 18, citing concerns that the loophole leads to forced marriages, teen pregnancies and a loss in educational opportunities.

“We as adults, we are the ones who know better and so we should do better to protect our children,” said Rep. Kaohly Her, a St. Paul Democrat sponsoring the legislation in the state House.

Backers of the ban descended on the Capitol last week donning wedding dresses and chains in an effort to lobby lawmakers and raise awareness. Days into the session, they pointed to an early sign of momentum: After falling short in the Republican-controlled state Senate last year, the legislation has picked up support from a key committee chairman there.

“I think it’s got the proper merit to be passed this year into law,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The new push in Minnesota comes amid heightened attention to the issue of child marriage both domestically and abroad. The United Nations has set a goal of ending child marriage worldwide by 2030, calling the practice a violation of rights of women and girls. While most states in the U.S. set the minimum age for marriage at 18, Minnesota and most other states allow exceptions. That’s starting to change.

Legislators across the country have introduced bills to raise the age or set additional requirements for granting underage marriage licenses. In New Hampshire, lawmakers moved to update a law that allowed girls as young as 13 to marry. If successful, Minnesota would join Delaware and New Jersey in banning marriages involving minors in all cases.

State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, called 18 “the international standard” for marriage. “As I’ve traveled around the world I’ve been really proud that women all over the world are saying, ‘No, we don’t want our girls to get married.’ But yet in the U.S., state by state, we’re still allowing children to marry,” she said. “We want our girls and our boys to finish school. We want the girls not to become pregnant. They’re too young.”

It’s not clear how common such marriages are in Minnesota. About 2,000 Minnesotans ages 15 to 19, less than 1% of the population, had been married in 2014, according to census data.

Fraidy Reiss, an activist working to stop child marriage nationwide, said the practice is still “happening at an alarming rate.” But statewide figures are hard to come by because marriage certificates are recorded and tracked at the county level. Advocates say anecdotal evidence suggests the majority of cases are young women marrying older men, and that the practice occurs across cultural lines.

“It happens in the United States in new immigrant communities and it happens in communities that have lived in this country for many generations,” Her said.

Supporters of changing the law cite research on the adverse effects of young marriage. Studies show girls in the U.S. who marry before 18 face higher rates of poverty, teen pregnancy and mental health or substance abuse issues later in life. Reiss, who leads the advocacy group Unchained at Last, noted that minors who marry can face legal and logistical challenges if they want to end the relationship. State law is unclear about whether someone under 18 can file for divorce.

“Marriage, even at 16 or 17, has devastating lifelong repercussions,” Reiss said. “It destroys a girl’s health, her education, economic opportunities.”

Similar legislation in other states has attracted unusual alliances in opposition. A California bill to raise the age of marriage in most cases reportedly faced objections from faith-based groups, atheists, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood. Representatives for the Minnesota chapters of ACLU and Planned Parenthood said their organizations are not taking a stance on the bill here. John Helmberger, CEO of the influential Minnesota Family Council, said his group supports the ban “because of the known risk of young people, particularly young women, being coerced into marriage against their will and best interest.”

A previous version of the bill passed the DFL-controlled House last year but stalled in the state Senate without a hearing. Limmer, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he was initially concerned about constitutional issues related to recognizing marriages from other states. He also questioned whether the state should “stand in the way” of couples that “have a legitimate desire to get married.” Hearing stories from supporters of young women forced into arranged marriages with older men changed his mind.

“I can only think it’s inappropriate, especially when a dowry is paid to the young lady’s parents. It’s almost like buying a bride. And that should never happen in our state,” Limmer said. “After considering the legal principles versus the intention of the bill, I’m becoming sold on the idea that it’s a proper thing to do.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican, has not taken a position on the bill. Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, said while he wants to be sensitive to cultural norms in some communities, he’s open to raising the age.

“I think it certainly makes sense for our children to be protected,” he said.

———

©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)