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Missouri legislators seek to ban child marriage without exception

Child marriage
Maria Fabrizio
Special to NPR

A bipartisan bill debated in a state Senate committee Monday would ban child marriage in Missouri.

Under current law, 16 and 17-year-olds are allowed to get married with parental consent. Marriage between a minor and anyone 21 or older is prohibited.

The legislation discussed Monday afternoon would prohibit issuing marriage licenses to anyone under the age of 18 under any circumstances.

Under the identical bills, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder of Scott City and Democratic Sen. Lauren Arthur of Kansas City, Missouri would join 10 states that have banned child marriage.

Thompson Rehder said she got married when she was 15 years old to her 21-year-old boyfriend.

“And at the time, I was operating in what I thought was an adult mindset…but it was only until much later that I realized at 15 years old, you really don’t have the mental capacity to make those types of decisions,” she said Monday in the state Senate’s Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence committee.

“Being someone who did get married at 15,” Thompson Rehder said, “I know that it is something that you really shouldn’t be doing before you’re an adult.”

Arthur said raising the age is a “moral imperative that protects the innocence and potential of our youth.”

“You can picture a young girl, 16, eyes filled with dreams and aspirations,” Arthur said, “being asked to take on the responsibilities and challenges of marriage and potentially motherhood. And I would argue that’s not necessarily the future we want to envision for our daughters.”

Rep. Nate Tate, R-St. Clair, visits with Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, on the side gallery of the House of Representatives. Rehder spent nine years trying to pass a statewide prescription drug monitoring program, and was finally successful in that effort on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.
Tim Bommel
Missouri State Rep. Nate Tate, R-St. Clair, visits with Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, right, on the side gallery of the House of Representatives.

Until the legislature voted to raise the minimum marriage age to 16 in 2018, Missouri had among the most lenient child marriage laws in the nation — making it an especially popular state for 15-year-olds to travel to be married.

Despite the 2018 change, Missouri law still does not align with international human rights standards, which set the minimum age at 18. Activists argued at the time Missouri’s new law would continue to leave 16 and 17-year-olds vulnerable to potential coercion.

Those in favor of a ban on child marriage often argue that marriage under 18 is coercive and can transform into forced marriage, especially because children lack the legal rights of adulthood.

Nationally, those opposed to a ban often invoke parental rights or religious liberty.

Five people testified in support of the bill Monday and one in opposition.

Lauren Van Wagoner, of Kansas City, testified that at 17 she was married to her 21-year-old boyfriend.

“The reality is I wasn’t mature enough to make that decision,” she said, “I was only thinking of not having a curfew…And preventing my husband from religious excommunication. Neither of those things should have been my responsibilities at that point.”

The next twelve years, Van Wagoner testified, were “a horror story,” which included abuse from her husband. After her husband left her in 2018, she said, through tears, “I found myself without any real job skills or continuing education.”

“My story is rare,” she said. “I’m one of the lucky ones: I got out of my marriage.”

Many who married as children are “stuck in the cycle of poverty and abuse because they can’t escape,” she added.

The others testifying in support of the bill included those lobbying for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Missouri Kids First, Rape and Abuse Crisis Service of Jefferson City and a family law attorney.

“We’ve worked in a lot of other policy areas like juvenile justice to raise the age of 18 and have a standard for the state,” said Jessica Petrie, representing Missouri Kids First, “and we believe it’s time we get our marriage laws in line, and bring it to that age as well.”

Matthew Huffman, representing Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said child marriage “undermines our statutory rape laws,” as a marriage license “essentially becomes a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card” for what would otherwise be considered child rape.

A study from the advocacy group Unchained at Last in 2021 found that between 2000 and 2018, 8,007 children were married in Missouri. Nationally, most children who married were girls and most were to men over the age of 18.

Eighty-six percent of children married over this time period nationally, the nonprofit found, were girls.

The person testifying in opposition was Timothy Faber, a lobbyist for the Missouri Baptist Convention.

“We certainly have empathy for those who have experienced negative consequences to marry at such an early age,” Faber said, adding that as a minister for 40 years, he has never conducted a marriage ceremony for a minor.

“However,” he said, “I can see a few rare circumstances where that might be appropriate.”

Sen. Curtis Trent, a Republican from Springfield, asked Faber for detail on those instances.

“I guess I’m just not seeing what situations that this would prevent — you’ve tried to identify some rare circumstances where the bill might be too restrictive and I’m not sure if any have been identified yet,” Trent said.

Faber replied: “To close the door totally just seems too much. I think we ought to certainly tighten it up.”

Rehder said the work she could get as a 15-year-old supporting herself was limited to cleaning houses: “That was all I could get because I was a child,” she said.

“Years ago when our great-grandparents got married very early, that was before women had the opportunity that they have now of education,” she said. “So I think this is something that protects the girls, and it gives them a start like anyone else for them to make these choices as adults instead of children.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent.