New Jersey could become the first state to ban marriage for anyone under age 18 to prevent teenagers, particularly young girls, from being forced to marry someone they may not love.
The effort to prevent girls, especially, from having to marry someone due to a pregnancy or because the union was arranged by parents or for other reasons has bipartisan support. Some Republicans, though, complain that preventing young people from marrying could lead to more abortions and would just send them to another state where it is legal to marry before reaching adulthood.
Having already passed the state Senate last month by a 30-5 vote, S-427/ A865 could be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee later this month. With 40 co-sponsors from both parties, the bill has a good chance of passage in the lower house, as well.
The measure simply prevents a person under age 18 from getting married in New Jersey. Currently, anyone who is not an adult may marry with permission: for those age 16 or 17, a parent or guardian may give the OK; for those under age 16, a judge must approve the marriage.
Christie said it was ‘disingenuous’
A similar bar passed the Legislature last year, only to be conditionally vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie. In his message, Christie suggested banning marriage for those under 16 and requiring judicial approval for those age 16 and 17. He said preventing all those under 18 from marrying “would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions.” He also called it “disingenuous” to say that teens are unable to consent to marriage, given “New Jersey law permits the very same 16 year old to consent to sex or obtain an abortion without so much as parental knowledge, let alone consent.”
Source: NJ Department of Health
Proponents say the measure is needed because current law has not stopped the forced marriage of teens in the state. According to the NJ Department of Health, 48 teens — 43 of them female — got married in 2015. That’s down from 328 two decades earlier, and likely due in part to a drop in the teen pregnancy rate and a greater acceptance by society of an unmarried teen having a baby. But it’s still too many, proponents of the legislation say.
Letting parents give consent to the marriage of a teen is insufficient protection for that child, as parents are often the ones pushing their children to marry due to a pregnancy or an arrangement, proponents say. And a teen facing a judge’s questioning is also likely to lie about agreeing to marry because the youngster knows that she will have to return home to parents who will be angry if she tells the truth and says she does not want to wed.
“We are trying to protect young women, especially and most importantly when they are put in a position where we can’t trust others to protect them,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), a bill co-sponsor.
Impinging on free choice?
But two Republicans argued against the ban during a hearing last month by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“It seems to me we are spinning our wheels and not accomplishing very much. Where there is real affection, real desire by someone 16 to get married, I wonder if we are overly impinging on their free choice,” said Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen), citing as an example a 50-year-old marrying a 16-year-old when they have “genuine affection” for one another. “At 13, a girl can go to an abortion clinic without parental guidance … but when the same child wants to get married, we say no? That’s an anachronism.”
“There are significant concerns among leaders of the pro-life movement that this will lead to more abortions occurring,” said Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren). He also said that he saw young men of 18 in the service with 17-year-old girlfriends who were hoping to marry and that right should not be denied them. “There are a whole host of reasons why this is a bad bill. We should not have a one size fits all approach to this.”
Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of the group Unchained At Last that is pushing for bars to marriage for those under 18, said there are no studies showing that restricting marriage by young people leads to an increase of abortions. She called the comments by both Cardinale and Doherty “outrageously wrongheaded sixteenth century remarks.”
Reiss said state laws conspire against girls forced into marriage before they reach adulthood. Many battered women’s shelters will not take in underage girls because until they turn 18 they may be considered runaways and a shelter could face legal ramifications for harboring a runaway, she said. Additionally, because children are not allowed to bring cases to court in many states, they cannot file for divorce, nor can they seek a protective order against an abusive spouse. This has made it difficult for her group to offer real help to girls, as young as 14, who contact Unchained At Last for assistance.
And judicial review does not prevent forced marriages.
“You hear the term ‘shotgun wedding’ but some survivors have experience with that,” said Reiss, who herself was forced into an arranged marriage with a man she barely knew and who later became physically abusive. “Can you imagine, being married at gunpoint?”
In addition to pregnancy, the most common reasons why American girls are forced into marriage are because they are immigrants or members of religious groups where arranged marriages are common or where parents agree to a marriage for money or to help bring someone to the United States from another country.
“It’s a form of human trafficking,” said Reiss, noting that a recent report by the U.S. State Department termed the forced marriage of girls under 18 “a human rights abuse.”
Some members of New Jersey’s immigrant communities said there is little or no opposition to the proposed bar.
“In my opinion, this bill will not have any impact on arranged marriages and I do not expect that anyone will be upset if the bill passes,” said Kiran Kothari, a trustee of the Indian American Association of Greater Somerset County. “The arranged marriage practice is not that common among Indian immigrants.”
Reiss said girls forced into marriage at a young age often face emotional and psychological pain, even if they are not physically abused. Many girls forced into marriage will consider or attempt suicide.
“Being forced to marry puts a child in an untenable situation,” Reiss said. “You can tell the judge you’re being forced to marry and then go home and face the consequences for what you said, you might be beaten. Or, you can lie to the judge and then forever feel like you were complicit in your own misery.”
Unchained At Last is working to ban underage marriage throughout the United States. So far, legislation has been introduced in 30 states. Reiss said she is hopeful that Gov. Phil Murphy will enact the ban this time around, making New Jersey the first state to do so. It is unclear where Murphy stands on the matter, though he has been quick to enact other progressive measures, including a bill guaranteeing women equal pay. And Reiss notes that Lieutenant Gov. Sheila Oliver was a co-sponsor of the marriage ban bill in the last session.