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Missouri keeps child marriage legal as proposed ban dies in the House

Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Scott City, prepares for the penultimate day of legislative session Thursday, May 16, 2024.
Annelise Hanshaw
Missouri Independent
Missouri State Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Scott City, prepares for the penultimate day of legislative session Thursday in Jefferson City.

Child marriage will remain legal in Missouri for at least another year after Republican House leaders said they don’t have enough time to pass it.

Under current Missouri law, anyone under 16 is prohibited from getting married. But 16 and 17 year olds can get married with parental consent to anyone under 21.

Under legislation that cleared the Senate with virtually no opposition earlier this year, marriage would be banned for anyone under 18. “It was very surprising that the House has not allowed it to come to the body,” said Republican state Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder of Scott City, who sponsored the bill along with Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Democrat of Kansas City.

“Banning child marriage should not be controversial. When I filed this bill, I had no idea it would be controversial,” Rehder added.

The bill was stalled by a group of Republican critics in a House committee, who said it would constitute government overreach and infringe on parental rights. It finally passed out of committee this week after several of those critics were not present at the vote.

But House leadership told reporters Friday morning it was too late to place the bill on the House calendar for debate. Session ends at 6 p.m.

“There’s some interest there, unfortunately the rules preclude us from doing that today,” said House Majority Leader Jon Patterson, a Lee’s Summit Republican.

Arthur said the failure is “shameful.”

“When I talk to people back home, they’re surprised to learn that minors can get married in the first place,” Arthur said. “And these are the kinds of headlines that my friends who are apolitical or live in different parts of the country send me and say, ‘What is happening in Missouri?’

“It makes us look bad,” she said, “but more importantly, we’re not doing enough to protect young girls who are forced into marriages and their lives are worse in every way as a result.”

Twelve other states have in recent years banned child marriage.

Rehder said she was told only around 20 out of 163 House members were opposed. She also said the House could have voted to suspend its rules to allow the bill to be debated and passed before adjournment, but suggested that House Speaker Dean Plocher refused to let the bill move forward to avoid embarrassing Republicans who are opposed to banning child marriage.

“We have the votes,” Rehder said, but it didn’t come up “because the speaker didn’t want to put his members in a bad situation.”

“…Because you shouldn’t be against banning child marriage.”

Rehder said she’s hopeful the bill will succeed next year, in large part due to the “public pressure” of state and national media.

“You cannot sign a legal binding contract in Missouri until you’re 18. But we’re allowing a parent to sign a child into a lifetime commitment. It’s ridiculous.”

Rehder attributed some of the opposition to generational differences.

“People who have been against it — the men who have been against it — who talk to me about it have said, ‘Oh, my grandmother got married at 15.’ Well, yes I did too, mine was 40 years ago,” Rehder said.

“And it didn’t work out because I was operating on not an adult mindset.”

Fraidy Reiss, an activist who founded the nonprofit against forced marriage Unchained at Last was active in testifying in support of the bill in Missouri and has worked nationally to pass similar legislation. Upon hearing the news, Reiss said: “How can legislators live with themselves?”

She added that “dozens of teens will be subjected to a human rights abuse and legally trafficked under the guise of marriage in the coming year,” due to the failure to pass the legislation.

“…How will they explain that to their constituents?”

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.