Florida House panel adds exception to underage marriage ban

After the Senate unanimously approved a ban on issuing marriage licenses to minors, a House committee Thursday backed a change that would allow some teens to marry in cases of pregnancies.

The move by the House Judiciary Committee came a day after the Senate — pointing to a woman who says she was forced to marry at age 11 after being raped and having a child — approved an outright ban (SB 140) on marriage licenses for people under 18.

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The House version of the bill (HB 335) called for a ban, but the change approved by the Judiciary Committee would allow exceptions under certain circumstances. It would allow exceptions only for minors who are 16 or 17 and plan to marry people no more than two years older. The couples also would have to verify pregnancies, and the minors would have to get written consent from their parents or guardians.

Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, a Fort Myers Republican who proposed the change, called it a “very narrowly tailored, real-life exemption.” Supporters of the amendment pointed to the need to address teens who get pregnant.

“I think this is a compromise,” Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, said. “I don’t think anyone would want their young, teenage daughter to get pregnant. But that’s not the reality. We know that. This is as old as man.”

But opponents of the exception included Sherry Johnson, whose story of being forced to marry her adult rapist at age 11 after giving birth to child has led to the legislation.

Gus Corbella, a lobbyist for the non-profit Tahirih Justice Center, which works to end child marriage, said girls who marry before age 18 face increased risks of issues such as poverty, dropping out of high school, divorce and sexual and domestic violence. He asked the House committee to follow the Senate’s lead in passing an outright ban.

“We just urge you to echo that strong sentiment and to keep the bill clean and defeat this amendment,” Corbella said.

The child-marriage issue has become high profile during the 2018 legislative session, at least in part because of the story of Johnson, who is now 58. Under current law, minors age 16 and 17 can get marriage licenses with parental consent, and judges have discretion to issue marriage licenses to younger minors if they have children or if pregnancies are involved.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, drew widespread praise when it came up for a vote Wednesday on the Senate floor.

But several House members expressed reservations before the Judiciary Committee approved the revised House bill Thursday. Many of those reservations centered on issues related to teens getting pregnant and having babies out of marriage.

Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said the change approved by the committee creates “hoops” that minors would still have to go through before they could get married.

“You have some people that are committed to what it means to raise a child together, and that can happen at 16, 17, 18,” Grall said. “And we should support the opportunity for those families to come together before the birth of a child and decide to raise them.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, is now ready to go to the full House.

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