The House this week voted to set a minimum age at which people in Missouri can get a marriage license, but the bill met more resistance than last year.
Marriage licenses can now be issued to persons younger than 15 under certain conditions. House Bill 1630 would increase that age to 17 and require a court hearing on whether the marriage is advisable. No licenses would be issued when either party is younger than 15, or when one party is 21 or older and the other party is younger than 17.
Bill sponsor Jean Evans (R-Manchester) began offering the legislation last year as a way to fight human trafficking; particularly cases in which abusers bring young trafficking victims to Missouri to marry them.
“Currently we do not have a minimum age of marriage in Missouri and this bill seeks to correct that,” said Evans. “In addition it will protect young people from predators and those who might do them harm with forced marriages.”
The bill had bipartisan support, including from St. Louis Democrat Michael Butler, who said it’s appropriate for the legislature to set a minimum age for things like marriage.
“A decision to get married … is a very important decision, and minors in a lot of cases, we know, generally don’t have complete control when that decision is made. To create a way for young people in our state to be protected from tough decisions that aren’t made by themselves, and we know this is occurring, is something that we should be doing,” said Butler.
Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) who argued that Missouri has a serious problem with human trafficking.
“If someone over the age of 21 – someone 30 years-old comes to a high school and engages in sexual activity with a 15 year-old or a 12 year-old or anyone under the age of consent that’s statutory rape, and right now that person can legitimately get married. That’s a problem,” said Dogan.
Similar legislation passed out of the House last year 139-1, but this year many Republicans opposed the bill. Some, including Lincoln Republican Wanda Brown, don’t like the requirement that a court hearing decide whether a marriage license should be issued for someone between the ages of 15 and 17.
“I’m not opposed, necessarily, to raising the age limit for marriage. What I’m opposed to is telling every parent in this state they’re not fit to make a decision for their child without asking a judge, and of course paying an attorney,” said Brown. “The bill was brought forward in the name of stopping human trafficking. This is a made-up concept. This does nothing to stop the traffickers. This only takes the parental rights of good, law abiding citizens.”
Others like David Wood (R-Versailles) expressed concern the bill might affect religious populations living in their districts.
“I have a very large Mennonite population. Mennonite population typically marries relatively young,” said Wood. “My court could get really backed up waiting on a judge to approve a lot of these weddings when they’re approved by the family, they’re approved by the church, and they’re welcomed in the community.”
Regarding concerns like those of Wood, Evans said her bill is very similar to one in place in Pennsylvania where there are significant, similar religious populations.
“If you’re under 18 you have to have parent permission and go before a judge, and the judge just has to basically say there’s nothing – there’s no ill will here. There’s not somebody taking advantage of someone. This is a good fit, the families support it, and go forward and get married,” said Evans. “It’s very similar to that and it’s worked very well in Pennsylvania where, again, they have much larger communities of Amish and Mennonite even than we do here in Missouri.”
Evans also said the bill does nothing to prevent a religious wedding ceremony.
Despite increased opposition over last year, a bipartisan 95-50 vote sent the bill to the Senate. Last year Evans’ similar legislation was approved by a Senate committee but advanced no further.
Another measure backers say will help fight human trafficking became the first bill sent to the governor’s office in 2018. Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) signed House Bill 1246. The bill, sponsored by Adrian Republican Patricia Pike would require the development of posters displaying information on human trafficking.