A bill to prohibit minors from getting married in West Virginia was resurrected in the state Senate on Thursday, a day after its defeat in a committee.
The about-face didn’t necessarily give the bill a clear path to passage. Several senators gave impassioned speeches after the bill was brought back, some of whom defended the right of teenagers in love to marry.
The House of Delegates passed the bill last week. The Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly rejected it Wednesday night without debate. Republican Sen. Charles Trump of Morgan County, a committee member, made a motion that was adopted by the full Senate Thursday to withdraw the bill from the committee and give it a second reading. It will be up for a final reading Friday, and the Senate will have the right to amend the bill.
Currently, children can marry as young as 16 in West Virginia with parental consent. Anyone younger than that also must get a judge’s waiver.
The bill’s main sponsor, Democratic Del. Kayla Young of Kanawha County, has said that since 2000 there have been more than 3,600 marriages in the state involving one or more children.
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Cabell County Democratic Sen. Mike Woelfel, an attorney, said he represented a girl who got both married and divorced when she was in the eighth grade. Woelfel said he was concerned about older men who court young girls “and the next thing you know, some young girl has convinced her parents to let her get married.”
“What we have here is a good bill, because it does recognize that we aren’t in the 1950s or ’60s,” Woelfel said. “I think we’re moving into the modern era with this.”
Both Kanawha County Republican Sen. Mike Stuart, a former federal prosecutor, said he supports the age of 16 to marry. Stuart said his parents 50 years later “are still giddy teenagers” who were married at age 16.
Putnam County Republican Sen. Eric Tarr said he got married in high school but understands problems need to be addressed in the bill.
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“Knowing what it means to be two mature high school students in love and getting married and creating a life together, that’s a family born and a family that stays together,” Tarr said. “I think every one of us in this chamber values that and understands that.”
The bill would establish that 18 is the age of consent and remove the ability of a minor to obtain consent through their parents, legal guardians, or by court petition. Existing legal marriages, including those done in other states, would be unaffected.
According to the nonprofit group Unchained At Last, which seeks to end forced and child marriage, seven states have set the minimum age for marriage at 18, all since 2018. Supporters of such legislation say it reduces domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies and improves the lives of teens.
Although recent figures are unavailable, according to the Pew Research Center, West Virginia had the highest rate of child marriages among the states in 2014, when the state’s five-year average was 7.1 marriages for every 1,000 children ages 15 to 17.
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