Missouri could soon shed the label as the easiest place in the country for a 15-year-old to get married.
The Missouri House voted Wednesday to attach an amendment to a Senate bill to establish a minimum age for marriage.
The amendment, proposed by Rep. Jean Evans, R-Manchester, would make 16 the minimum age for marriage in Missouri and would prohibit marriage between a minor and anyone 21 or older. The amendment also would require minors to receive written consent from a parent or guardian before being married.
“It’s not a love story. More often than not they are situations of abuse,” Evans said of child marriages. “I think it’s a time where we need to respect and protect young people.”
During debate, Evans cited a Kansas City Star series published in March that found that some child brides even went on to marry their rapists.
The amendment was added to a bill sponsored by Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis County, that would remove the statutes of limitation on prosecutions involving child abuse and unlawful sexual offenses against children.
The bill was passed out of the House on Wednesday, 126-10. It now goes back to the Senate, which can approve the changes the House made and send the bill to the governor for his signature or veto.
Sifton said he was fine with the changes to the bill and plans to ask the Senate to send the bill to the governor.
Evans was the sponsor of a bill that would have made the minimum marriage age 15 and would have required a hearing before a judge in addition to parental consent for marriages of minors. The bill has cleared a Senate committee but has yet to be taken up by the full Senate.
Several Republican lawmakers expressed concern with prohibiting minors from marrying anyone 21 or older.
Rep. Don Rone, R-Portageville, said he married his wife when he was 25 years old, and they’ve been married for almost 52 years.
“If that's the case, my wife and I couldn't have married,” Rone said of Evans’ amendment. “My wife was 17 years old when I married her, and she would have turned 18 three weeks later. … I just wonder where I'd be today with someone else.”
Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, said her parents, who married in the 1950s, would have been prevented from doing so under Evans’ amendment.
“In my day, if a woman got (pregnant) out of wedlock, they had to revert to a shotgun wedding. But now,” Toalson Reisch said, “let's just ... stay single, let's not have a two-parent household or a father in the picture of this child.”
Toalson Reisch also expressed concern for how the amendment would affect religious groups such as the Amish in her community.
“They feel biblically that it’s better to marry than to burn,” Toalson Reisch said.
Evans said her own mother was 17 when she married. However, lawmakers in support of the amendment stressed that times have changed.
“We live in new times,” said Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., D-St. Louis. “We should be coming together and doing what’s best to protect our children.”
After nearly a half hour of debate, lawmakers adopted the amendment and passed Sifton’s bill out of the House.
“We are not blocking marriage,” said Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis. “We are keeping the sanctity of marriage.”