Brewer lawmaker revives effort to ban child marriage in Maine
The legislation by Rep Kevin O’Connell is part of a broader push to eliminate child marriage in the United States, and elsewhere, to prevent the exploitation of minors, especially girls.
By Randy Billings, Staff Writer
A Brewer lawmaker is trying again to end child marriages in Maine.
State law allows 16- and 17-year-olds to wed with parental consent, similar to state laws in about half of the country. But a bill proposed by Rep. Kevin O’Connell, a Democrat, would prohibit anyone under 18 from getting married, whether parents approve or not.
The bill is part of a broader effort to eliminate child marriage in the United States, and elsewhere, to prevent the exploitation of minors, especially girls. A small but growing number of states have eliminated the right of minors to marry under any circumstances.
O’Connell proposed a similar bill last session that passed in the House but died in the Senate. At the time, some opponents said that they preferred a different version of the bill that would have allowed 17-years-olds to get married, an age consistent with being eligible to enlist in the military.
That change doesn’t sit well with O’Connell, who said he served 24 years in the military and would often hear about 18-year-old soldiers marrying their 17-year-old girlfriends before deploying.
“I saw those (marriages) and I don’t recall any of them actually working,” O’Connell said during an interview last week. “You don’t have the life experiences under your belt to make that decision.”
Almost all states require both partners to be 18 to get a marriage license without needing their parents’ permission.
About half of U.S. states, including Maine, allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent. Nine states, including Florida, set a minimum age of 17. The minimum age in Kansas and Hawaii is 15, while nine states, including California, Mississippi and West Virginia, have no minimum age written into state laws, according to according to Unchained At Last, a survivor-led nonprofit seeking to end forced childhood marriages in the U.S.
Seven states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, have set the minimum age to marry at 18, the group said.
About 10,000 marriages take place in Maine each year, and fewer than 10 typically involve at least one partner who is under 18, according to state data.
Supporters of the effort to ban child marriages argue that parental consent provisions for people under 18 can result in parental coercion, especially in cases when a girl becomes pregnant. In some states, although not in Maine, pregnancy is cited as a reason girls can get a court’s permission to marry before they turn 18.
The vast majority of child marriages in Maine and the United States involve a girl marrying an adult man. There were 46 marriages in Maine in the past six years that involved someone under the age of 18. Nearly all of those marriages — 43 — involved a girl. Five of the marriages involved a boy, including two marriages to a girl.
Unchained At Last says 70% to 80% of child marriages end in divorce, leaving young women with few options. Minors are immediately emancipated upon marriage and can become homeless if they leave their spouse, they said. Their futures are dimmer, because they often don’t complete their educations.
“(The Maine bill) simply eliminates the dangerous loophole and keeps the marriage age at 18,” Michele Hanash, of Unchained At Last, said in support of the bill last session. “It harms no one, costs nothing and ends a human rights abuse.”
Dawn Tyree, of Manning, Oregon, testified before the Maine Legislature last year about her experience as a child bride.
Tyree said her parents forced her to marry her 32-year-old nanny when she was 13-years-old after she became pregnant as the result of sexual abuse. By the age of 16, she was looking to escape the marriage. She had two toddlers and nowhere to turn. She was not allowed into shelters and she was too young to get a hotel room.
“My parents had disowned me for leaving the marriage,” she said. “My husband had reported me as a runaway and law enforcement threatened to return me to my rapist.”
‘DECADES IN POVERTY’
Tyree said she spent decades in poverty as a result.
“My greatest fear was that my children would be taken away because of the way we lived,” she said. “The ripple effect of my child marriage has been devastating.”
O’Connell’s bill last session also was supported by the Justice of the Peace Association, which represents notaries and justices of the peace nationwide, including Maine.
Director Loretta Jay said 95% of her members voted to join the National Coalition to End Child Marriages in 2018 and would rather not participate in child marriages, yet they’re legally bound to do.
“Passage of this bill will also alleviate the state’s notaries from conflicting legal and ethical obligations,” Jay wrote. “Child marriage devastates girls’ lives. It destroys their health, education and economic opportunities, and increases their risk of experiencing violence.”
Until 2020, Maine allowed children under 16 to marry if they had parental consent and the approval of a judge. The Legislature passed a bill that year prohibiting marriage under the age of 16 and it became law without the signature of Gov. Janet Mills.
The governor’s office did not respond last week to questions about why Mills did not sign the 2020 law or where she stands on O’Connell’s bill.
Senate President Troy Jackson, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross and Rep. Michael Lemelin, R-Chelsea, are supporting O’Connell’s bill this session. Jackson voted against the bill last year and did not respond to questions about his decision to co-sponsor the bill this year.
A public hearing on O’Connell’s bill has not yet been scheduled.
Read article in Portland Press Herald.
- See all of JPus’ activity to raise the age of marriage to 18 – no exceptions
- See JPus managing member, Loretta Jay’s personal perspective on child marriage, posted on LinkedIn
- Follow our state-by-state changes to marriage laws
- Education and training for officiants about child and forced marriage.
- How membership voted to join the Coalition to End Child Marriage.
- Peer-reviewed research demonstrating how child marriage is harmful.