Photo of protester by Kyle O'Leary

Activists in N.J. push to ban child marriage before Christie leaves office

In an effort to make New Jersey the first state to ban child marriage, about 30 protesters outside the statehouse on Thursday dressed as brides with chained hands and tape over their mouths.

The state legislature passed a bill in March that would ban marriage for those under the age of 18. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it in May, suggesting instead that lawmakers amend the bill, A3091, to block anyone under age 16 from getting married and require a judge to approve the marriage license for people aged 16 or 17.

“Protecting the well-being, dignity, and freedom of minors is vital, but the severe bar this bill creates is not necessary to address the concerns voiced by the bill’s proponents and does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state,” he said.

The current marriage laws of New Jersey allow 16 and 17 year olds to marry with parental consent.

“Girls not brides, override, override, override,” the protesters shouted, referring to Christie’s conditional veto. Speakers from the National Organization of Women’s New Jersey and New York Chapters joined the demonstration, led by the nonprofit Unchained at Last.

READ MORE: New Jersey lawmakers pass bill banning child marriage

Fraidy Reiss, executive director of the activist group Unchained at Last, and who was forced into marriage herself at age 19, is calling for legislators to override Christie’s veto. Two-thirds of the members of both houses are needed to override the veto.

“Clearly this conditional veto was born of ignorance or of malice or perhaps a combination of the two. It is inconceivable for a governor to conditionally veto A) a bill that is common sense legislation, and B) passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses,” Reiss told the PBS NewsHour.

New Jersey Assemblyman Jon Bramnick introduced a bill, A4883, on June 1 that he said aims to balance Christie’s proposals and the concerns of Unchained at Last. The bill would bar those under age 16 from marrying or entering into a civil union, and only allow those age 16 and 17 to marry with parental consent and judicial approval of “clear and convincing evidence that granting the license would be in the best interest and welfare of the minor.”

“I’m trying to have a practical answer here on a policy that I agree with, with the Unchained group,” Bramnick said. “In politics, unfortunately, this is the best I can get done under the circumstance.”

The New Jersey session will be out at the end of the month and return in November. The election for a new governor of New Jersey is Nov. 7.

“I would like the group who is against child marriage, as I do, to work with me to stop these marriages until we can get a complete marriage ban done. Without the help of the anti-child marriages groups, I can’t get it done,” Bramnick said.

But Reiss said the compromise wasn’t enough, calling the state’s judicial review process for child marriages a failure. According to Reiss, New Jersey judges approved more than 100 marriages since 1995 that she said counted as statutory rape, because of the age difference between the girls marrying men.

Reiss said Bramnick did not discuss the compromise with her before its introduction. She plans another protest Chain-In event on June 14 outside Bramnick’s office. “All he did was add the words ‘best interest’ and thinks that makes a magical solution,” she said.

Various U.S. states have exemptions for minors — under the legal age of 18 — to marry, with 27 states setting no age “floor” at all. Child advocates, including Unchained at Last, argue that child marriage is a human rights abuse that can result in health, educational and economic consequences for the victim.

Other states considering bills similar to the one Christie vetoed include Connecticut, Maryland and Massachusetts.

No matter who becomes governor in November’s election, Reiss vowed to push for the original bill again next year. “I’m not looking for a middle ground, I’m looking to end a human rights abuse,” she said.

PBS NewsHour special correspondent Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reports on forced marriage in the U.S.

Support PBS NewsHour: