Florida Moves to Ban Marriage Before the Age of 17

March 9, 2018
by Anjali Tsui Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

The Florida House of Representatives voted 109-1 to pass a bill that would ban marriage for people under the age of 17. (Scott Keeler/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Florida has moved to tighten its laws on child marriage.

On Friday, state lawmakers passed a bill, 109-1, to set the minimum marriage age at 17. Under current law, minors typically need to be at least 16 years old to marry. Those who are pregnant, however, may marry at any age if they have parental permission and a judge’s approval.

The new measure would allow 17 year olds to get married, provided that their partners are no more than two years older than them. Minors will also need parental consent.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the bill into law, according to a spokesperson. If he does so, Florida will become the fifth state in the last two years to reform laws governing when a person under the age of 18 can marry.

The laws in every state allow people under the age of 18 to marry under certain conditions. Minors often have to obtain parental consent, and sometimes, a judge’s approval. In rare cases, they must petition to become legally emancipated in order to marry.

More than 207,000 minors were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015, according to a FRONTLINE analysis of marriage records in 41 states and the largest counties in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. Florida was among the states with the most marriages involving minors. Some 16,400 minors were married in Florida over the 15-year period. The vast majority — around 87 percent — were girls. Around a handful of minors in Florida were 13 years old.

In recent years, several states have started to reexamine their laws around marriages involving minors. Advocates for reform say existing laws are failing to protect minors who may be pressured or forced into a marriage. Others, however, are wary of completely banning marriage for minors and argue that teenagers should have the option to get married, especially if a pregnancy is involved.

[Listen: Child Marriage in America]

While the amended law in Florida is designed to help limit the number of marriages involving minors, it falls short of what advocates hoped for: raising the marriage age to 18 without exceptions. They won some initial success last month when the Florida Senate unanimously passed such a measure. However, the proposal faced pushback in the Republican-led House of Representatives, where lawmakers called for exceptions for 16- and 17-year-olds, as well as those who are pregnant.

“It’s not what we wanted, but it’s much, much better,” said Amanda Parker, senior director of the AHA Foundation, a women’s rights organization that campaigned for the bill. “We really wanted to see a bright line minimum marriage at 18. We know that 17 year olds are the most likely to be married out of all minors, so we’re still leaving a big chunk of the population at risk of child marriage in Florida.”

Indeed, 17 year olds accounted for more than 60 percent of all minors who married in Florida between 2000 and 2015.

The compromise in Florida mirrors similar deals struck in statehouses across the country last year. Last June, lawmakers in Connecticut voted to set its marriage age at 16. In July, New York raised its minimum marriage age from 14 to 17. Then, in September, Texas introduced a new law that restricts marriage to minors who have been emancipated.

Bills to raise the minimum marriage age are currently pending in at least a dozen other states, including Alaska, Arizona, California, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Vermont.

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