Government & Politics

Missouri governor signs law banning marriage of 15-year-olds

She was 15 and pregnant. On the way home from school she was told, ‘you’re getting married today’

Ashley Duncan's family told her she was getting married at 15 to protect her 18-year-old boyfriend, the father of her child, from possible statutory rape charges.
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Ashley Duncan's family told her she was getting married at 15 to protect her 18-year-old boyfriend, the father of her child, from possible statutory rape charges.

Missouri — long the easiest state in the nation for 15-year-olds to wed — has outlawed the practice.

Gov. Mike Parson on Friday signed into law Senate Bill 655. Before, Missouri was one of 25 states with no minimum marriage age. And Missouri was the only state that allowed children age 15 to marry with only one parent’s approval, even if the other parent objected. Children younger than 15 needed a judge’s approval.

“The welfare of our children must always be a top priority,” Parson said in a statement Friday.

In March, The Kansas City Star published a series on child marriage showing that Missouri possessed the dubious honor of the most lenient law in the nation allowing 15-year-olds to wed.

The result was that Missouri had become a destination wedding spot for 15-year-old brides, with 1,000 15-year-olds being wed in the state between 1999 and 2017. Many of them were marrying men age 21 or older, in effect allowing the girls to marry their rapists.

Now, no one age 15 or under is allowed to marry in the state. The minimum legal age is 16. Marriage at 16 and 17 still requires the signed approval of at least one parent. In addition, marriage licenses will not be given to individuals 21 or older intending to marry someone 16 or younger.

“It’s done. It’s awesome,” said Rep. Jean Evans, a Republican from St. Louis County who, for two years, worked to change the state’s child marriage laws. “I think some people think there’s not much to it because we raised it from 15 to 16. (But) there was no minimum before.

“Most important, we are not going to allow adults to prey on children. Someone 21 is not going to be allowed to marry someone 15. We are not going to allow adults to legalize what is statutory rape.”

The bill that Parson signed into law, sponsored by Sen. Scott Sifton, a Democrat from St. Louis County, also removes the statutes of limitation on prosecutions involving child abuse and unlawful sexual offenses against children.

The path to changing Missouri’s minimum marriage age has been long and circuitous. Last year, in the House, Evans presented a bill that would have set the age at 17. That bill passed the House but died because it never made it to the Senate floor in time for a vote.

Earlier this year, Evans tried again, presenting House Bill 1630, a compromise that made 15 the minimum marriage age and required a judge’s approval for ages 15 and 16. That bill passed the House and, in May, had been awaiting a vote in the Senate.

Instead of taking the chance that it might again die from lack of time, Evans changed the bill in the House, increasing the minimum age to 16 with one parent’s approval. Evans’ bill was added as an amendment to Sifton’s Senate bill. The Senate passed it on a 32 to 1 vote. The House passed it 135 to 3, readying it for the governor’s signature.

Former Gov. Eric Greitens did not sign the measure before he resigned in May, leaving it up to his successor.

The new law places Missouri among an ever-increasing number of states adopting stricter child marriage laws.

In May, Delaware became the first state in the nation to ban child marriage — anyone under 18 — altogether, with no exceptions. New Jersey followed in June. In the last two years, Virginia and Texas outlawed marriages under age 18, unless the children have been legally emancipated. New York last year made 17 the minimum age.

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