Appalled that Missouri still allows brides and grooms as young as 15, 14 and even preteens to marry, state legislators are poised to vote on a bill that would toughen one of the most lenient child marriage laws in the nation.
Yet the bill, now in committee in the state Senate, would be perhaps the weakest of a new batch of child marriage laws being considered in a dozen other states, a review of recent bills shows.
"I would challenge Missouri to join the wave that is setting a higher bar," said Jeanne L. Smoot, the senior counsel for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, a Virginia-based advocacy group working to reduce the abuse of young girls by raising the minimum marriage age to 18, with no exceptions.
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, and this month, Kentucky and Florida sent bills to their governors with that same restriction.
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But not in Missouri, where passage of House Bill 1630 would still allow 15-year-olds to marry — although, new for the state, they would need a judge's approval.
Even the bill's author, state Rep. Jean Evans, a St. Louis County Republican, wishes it were stronger and recognizes its weaknesses compared to other states.
"The 15- and 16-year-old thing: Honestly, I don't like it," Evans said in a recent telephone interview. "I would like to get rid of that part of the bill. But when it was presented to me that there were a lot of reps who would object to that, and it probably wouldn't pass, I agreed to make it so.
"You never get everything you want in politics. ... Compromise is part of getting things done."
As a recent Kansas City Star series showed, Missouri currently possesses the most lenient law in the United States allowing 15-year-olds to wed. While other states ban such young marriages outright or require some combination of a judge's order or permission from both parents, Missouri only requires the signature of one parent for 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds to receive a marriage license, even if the other parent objects.
The result, the series showed, is that Missouri has turned into a destination wedding spot for 15-year-old brides, because they can't get married as easily in their own states. Many often marry in Missouri to help keep their older boyfriends from being arrested for statutory rape.
The new bill, which in February passed from the House to the Senate on a 95 to 50 vote, is designed to curtail such marriages:
▪ It would prohibit all marriages of anyone under age 15. Currently, Missouri is one of about 25 states that sets no minimum age.
▪ To prevent young girls from marrying men who could be their statutory rapists, the bill bans anyone age 21 or older from marrying children age 16 or younger.
▪ It would require 15- and 16-year-olds to first get a judge to sign off on the marriage, as well as a parent. For now, only ages 14 and younger require judicial approval.
The judge's role would be to determine if the marriage is coerced, or if it is in the child's best interest. On the House floor, that point alone ignited passionate debate, with mostly Republican House members going head-to-head over whether a judge or a parent should decide a child's future.
Proponents argued that a judge would add a layer of protection for children, particularly when a parent might subtly or overtly coerce a young girl into an unwanted marriage.
"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," said Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Republican from St. Louis County, speaking on the floor in favor of the bill. "Right now that person can legitimately get married. That's a problem. Right now there are no protections in law to make sure that someone who goes to the altar is not being coerced to be there."
Among the 50 representatives who voted against the bill was Rep. Rick Brattin, a Republican from Harrisonville, in Cass County.
"I just have a lot of issue with us stepping in and requiring a judge to have to decide on something when I do believe this is a family matter, a religious matter," he said during House debate.
He thought that a judge would only make it harder for young couples who face pregnancy and "want to make things right and do things in a God-honoring way."
"They may be young," Brattin said. "But I've known a lot of young people that have made a decision to commitment and they're together still and they've become a strong family unit. ... I think we need to ensure that parents are at the forefront of these decisions."
'I would have done it differently'
Rep. Holly Rehder didn't speak on the House floor. But the Republican lawmaker from Sikeston, near the Missouri Bootheel — a hotbed for child marriages — had a deeply personal reason to support the bill.
"I got married at 15," Rehder said in a recent telephone interview. Her husband was 21.
"I grew up very different. At 15, I had to quit school and take care of my family."
Rehder, who took office in 2013, has not shied from the details of her life. Raised in poverty by a single mother, she was sexually abused at age 11 by a close relative.
Pregnant at 16, she would divorce after seven years but would eventually go on to earn her high school diploma, remarry and, at age 40, earn her college degree. In 2004, she and her husband Ray began a successful telecommunications contracting company.
But her childhood was harsh. “I was being raised on welfare and the drug culture and those types of things,” she said.
For her, marriage was an escape. “I wanted to get out of that life,” she said.
Her mother signed her marriage license. Soon after, her family was in a devastating car accident, forcing her to care for her mother and sister, quit school and go to work.
Her example, she knows, can be used to show that child marriage doesn’t necessarily hold a person back. But it’s not something she would choose again.
“I think it is important to have someone else looking at it besides just the mother or the father,” Rehder said. “Having a judge take a second look to make sure that the child is not in any kind of danger is extremely important.
“From the inside, I know — and I’ve always said — I would have done it differently. Even at 15, and being completely responsible for a family and all that, I still look back and think, if I could have dealt with it for three more years and graduated and gotten out, I would have had a much stronger path."
Last year, Evans introduced a similar bill that passed the House overwhelmingly, 139 to 1, requiring parental approval for 17-year-olds and also judicial approval for anyone younger. But the Senate ran out of time to hear it, and the bill died.
Although Evans wishes the current bill was as strong as in other states, she thinks it corrects numerous wrongs, such as young girls marrying significantly older men or being forced to marry based on one parent's misguided wishes.
"With this bill," Evans said, "you can't be 21 and marry someone under 17. That's gone. I think these people who are coming to our state specifically for that might say, 'Well, that may not be a road we want to take.' I just think it's going to eliminate a lot of the unfortunate things we have seen."
The bill is now being shepherded through the Missouri Senate by Sen. Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican who was a Christian singer and songwriter. His support of the bill, he said, coincides with his work to combat human trafficking.
"I think the idea that the government can try to do something in this space to keep something from happening is, in my mind, a no-brainer," Rowden said. "People don't understand how having a marriage law like the one we have can lead to these other things."
Earlier this month, a parade of witnesses spoke before a Senate committee in favor of Evans' bill. No one spoke in opposition.
In written testimony, the Tahirih Justice Center called on lawmakers to strengthen H.B. 1630 with four changes: require 17-year-olds to get judicial approval; set the minimum age at 16 rather than 15; appoint attorneys to children so they would be less apt to give in to parental pressure to marry; and ensure that minors are emancipated before marriage so they have the rights of adults.
Under Missouri law, for example, one must be 18 to divorce. Emancipation would give them this right should a marriage become abusive or untenable.
Senators could try to toughen the current bill. But Rowden said he also doesn't want to put it in jeopardy.
"It is probably not where I want it," Rowden said of the bill. "We also have to navigate the reality of finding the toughest one we can pass. I've always been an advocate of get what you can get when you can get it."
The General Assembly is scheduled to return from a weeklong recess on Monday. The session ends May 18.
"I think ultimately," Rowden said, "we've got to figure out how to get the bill across the finish line this year."