In Most States, Child Marriage is Legal. Some Legislators Are Trying to Change That

Child marriage was legal in all states until 2018, when Delaware and New Jersey became the first two states to ban all marriage for children under 18.

Child marriage was legal in all states until 2018, when Delaware and New Jersey became the first two states to ban all marriage for children under 18. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Several state legislatures have pending bills that would set a mandatory minimum age of 18 for anyone to get married.

Many people think child marriage is a problem isolated to the developing countries, where the rates of children, especially girls, married before 18 can rise as high as 76%. But while child marriage may be less common in the U.S. it isn’t unheard of—and in most states, isn’t illegal.  

Child marriage was legal in all states until 2018, when Delaware and New Jersey became the first two states to ban all marriage for children under 18. In most states, teenagers who are at least 16 can marry with parental consent, and in some states, judges can approve a marriage for children younger than that. In 13 states, there is no minimum age that judges can approve, leading to marriages for girls as young as 12. Six states and the District of Columbia set an age floor for approval at 14 or 15.

Fraidy Reiss, the executive director of Unchained at Last, an organization that advocates for child marriage bans in state legislatures, said that the unions are more common than most people expect. Over 200,000 children under the age of 18 were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015. Most were girls married to adult men. “They don’t have the basic rights of adulthood needed to enter into a complex contract,” she said. “The impacts are devastating.”

Girls married at or before 18 are 50% more likely to drop out of high school, and also more likely to live in poverty later in life. And while a teenager getting married may be taking a step into adult life, the fact that she is a minor makes it difficult to act like an adult. In most states, children can’t enter domestic violence shelters on their own or easily retain an attorney to file for divorce. “It’s a legal trap for children and a public health crisis,” Reiss said. “Almost every aspect of a girl’s life is destroyed.”

In the past three years, over thirty states have considered bills that would establish age floors or ban marriage with no exceptions before 18. The issue hasn’t sailed through state legislatures, though, but rather accumulated a set of unlikely opponents. In some cases, conservative family values advocates and liberal women’s rights groups have found themselves aligning to block the bills. Conservatives argue that any limit on marriage is government overreach, while liberals warn that the bills infringe on the rights of teenagers to make their own decisions, setting a dangerous precedent. 

States Take Action

The movement to end child marriage in the U.S. didn’t take off until 2015—and many state legislators have said they aren’t aware that it’s even legal until a bill comes up for debate. For Republican state Rep. Jesse Topper in Pennsylvania, stories from people like Reiss spurred him to sponsor a bill in the state. “I hadn’t heard of the issue before,” he said. “But the more I learned about it, the more I realized what a problem it is.”

Topper’s legislation would ban all marriages before 18. Pennsylvania’s House and Senate each unanimously passed separate bills doing just that, but they are slightly different so one needs to pass both houses. Gov. Tom Wolf has said he will sign a measure into law once it appears on his desk. 

The Massachusetts Senate also unanimously passed their ban this summer, and is waiting for the House to take action on the bill. Reiss said she is optimistic Pennsylvania and Massachusetts will become the third and fourth states to completely ban marriage for minors.

Legislation to create strict bans are also pending in Minnesota, Washington, Michigan, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. A bill to ban marriage before 18 failed this year in Wyoming. Other states, like Maine and Idaho have introduced bills to set an age floor of 16. 

Fraidy Reiss (center) with Unchained at Last travels to state capitols advocating for child marriage bans. (AP Photo/Anna Gronewold)

Six states have passed bans on marriage for children younger than 18 in the past few years, but made exceptions for court-emancipated minors. Reiss said she doesn't believe these exceptions are wise and advocates against states setting age floors lower than 18, saying lawmakers aren’t really tackling the issue. “We’re asking states to eliminate dangerous loopholes,” she said. “When all they do is change them, they’re not ending child marriage.”

Topper agreed. “Our bill was about setting an age where we say you can make a life altering decision,” he said. “In most minor marriages, the decision wasn’t made by the child, it was made by the parent or the adult they’re marrying. There’s no way to safeguard against that with any exemptions built in.”

Where legislators say they want more flexibility in the law, the debate sometimes revolves around teen girls who are pregnant, looking for a way to get away from abusive parents or want to marry someone about to be deployed for military service.

In Louisiana, where the youngest minor to wed in the past decade was a mere 12 years old, the state legislature passed a law this year to create an age floor of 16. The fight was emblematic of many across the country, pitting Republicans against members of their own party. 

State Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, a Republican who pushed for an age limit of 17, said that marriage of underage children essentially legalized what in the case of non-married couples would be considered statuatory rape. “This is to make sure we don’t have people covering up acts of rape as a marriage,” she said on the House floor. “This is a child protection issue.”

But Hilferty was rebuffed by other Republicans, like state Rep. Valarie Hodges, who worried about children born out of wedlock. “A lot of 16-year-olds get pregnant,” she said. “Do you feel it’s better for them to not get married at all and for the child to be born illegitimately?”

In the end, lawmakers compromised on setting the age floor to marry at 16, as long as the teen has parental consent and judicial approval.

When another bill with an age floor of 16 came up for debate on the House floor in Idaho, Colin Nash, who was standing in for Rep. John McCrostie, said that the bill would be “a great opportunity for Idaho to rid itself of an infamous statistic” as the state with the highest rate of child marriage. Unchained at Last found that from 2000 to 2010, 4,080 children were married in the state, the youngest of whom was just 13. But that bill ultimately failed. 

Who Makes Up the Opposition?

Unlike many other issues up for debate in state legislatures, proponents and opponents of child marriage bills don’t fall cleanly along party lines. Many lawmakers opposed to raising the age say it is a matter of personal autonomy. A lawmaker who voted against the Idaho measure said that he was “obviously … against child marriage” but that marriage shouldn’t “require government permission."

Other lawmakers have argued that there are already legal safeguards in place to ensure that marriages of young people aren’t abusive, including the common requirement that judges sign off on a teenager’s request to marry. 

In Maryland, a bill to end child marriages failed in 2018 following opposition from women’s groups. Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center in Maryland, told the Baltimore Sun that the state shouldn’t limit the options of teens who feel that they need to marry. "We want them to have as many options as possible," she said. “If they think marriage is the best way out of a bad situation—at home or otherwise—then we're not there to stop them."

NARAL, a pro-choice organization, also opposed the Maryland bill because advocates said marriage allowed pregnant teens to access health insurance, housing assistance and other benefits. The group also feared that setting the marriage age at 18 could lead to other laws that would prevent children under 18 from accessing abortion and other reproductive care. 

In California, a 2017 bill to set the minimum age for marriage at 18 failed after the ACLU of Northern California and the local Planned Parenthood affiliate both campaigned against it. The ACLU argued that the bill "unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage without sufficient cause," and that "largely banning marriage under 18, before we have evidence regarding the nature and severity of the problem, however, puts the cart before the horse."

Others have also argued that child marriage laws are unenforceable, since some people will just get married in religious ceremonies, away from the eyes of the state. To those detractors, Reiss posed a question. “Murders still happen, and those are against the law,” she said. “Should we not have laws against murder anymore?”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Field Crews Eliminate Paper Workflows in City of La Mesa
La Mesa, CA, USA
Forecasting Ambulance Needs for the City of San Diego
San Diego, CA, USA
Scalable Strategic Plan Model Ensures Alignment & Efficiencies Across 30 Buncombe County Departments
Asheville, NC, USA

NEXT STORY: The Deferred Dream of an Equal Rights Amendment

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.