Missouri bill to ban all child marriages runs into resistance from House Republicans

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

A bipartisan bill that would outlaw all child marriages in Missouri has run into resistance from Republicans in the Missouri House that could prevent it from becoming law.

The legislation, filed by Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, a Scott City Republican, and Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, would prohibit anyone under 18 from obtaining a marriage license. Current law allows 16 and 17-year-olds to get married with parental consent.

The GOP-controlled state Senate approved the bill on a nearly unanimous vote of 31 to 1 last month. But the legislation has since stalled in a House committee with just more than a week left in this year’s legislative session which ends on May 17.

Supporters of the bill say the opposition illustrates some lawmakers’ extreme and archaic views on marriage. Missouri previously had one of the nation’s most lenient laws surrounding child marriage and the state’s current law has been criticized as a loophole that leaves thousands of teenagers open to abuse and exploitation.

“Any explanation used to justify opposition is nothing more than, you know, an excuse to protect predators,” Arthur said in an interview.

The committee’s chair, Rep. Jim Murphy, a St. Louis-area Republican, said in an interview that there aren’t enough votes within the committee to get it to the House floor. Seven of the 14 committee members oppose the legislation and disagree with raising the state’s marriage age, he said.

“It’s on the…going 16 to 18,” Murphy, who supports the bill, said of the opposition. “There’s just enough members in that committee that don’t think that’s a good idea.”

One of those lawmakers is Rep. Dean Van Schoiack, a Savannah Republican and vice chair of the committee. Van Schoiack said in an interview that he knows people who got married as minors, including a woman at roughly age 17.

The couple, he said, is “still madly in love with each other.”

“Why is the government getting involved in people’s lives like this?” Van Schoiak said. “What purpose do we have in deciding that a couple who are 16 or 17 years old, their parents say, you know, ‘you guys love each other, go ahead and get married, you have my permission.’ Why would we stop that?”

Rehder, who is running for lieutenant governor, pushed back in an interview.

“The government does tell people when they can get married because we do have an age limit right now,” she said. “The fact that he feels that it’s okay for a parent to make a decision for a child, that is a lifetime decision, is offensive.”

The legislation is personal for Rehder, who was married at age 15 to her 21-year-old boyfriend in 1984. A year earlier, her sister, at age 16, married her 39-year-old drug dealer, she has said.

“As a child that did get married,” she said, “I would say I have a lot more insight to this issue than what he does.”

Rehder remains optimistic that the bill could pass this year, saying she believes a majority of House lawmakers would support it. She hopes she can attach the language as an amendment to another bill so it can reach the House floor.

But even if the legislation can get past a committee vote, it could still run into some resistance from other Republicans in the House.

One of them is Rep. Hardy Billington, a Poplar Bluff Republican.

Billington, in an interview with The Star, claimed that the legislation could cause pregnant teenagers to have abortions when they can’t get married — even though abortion is already almost entirely banned in Missouri.

“My opinion is that if someone (wants to) get married at 17, and they’re going to have a baby and they cannot get married, then…chances of abortion are extremely high,” he said.

Rehder said that she was surprised at the opposition to the bill.

“It’s just a lingering of generational thought, you know, of what used to be normal,” she said. “It’s just not any longer and it’s not that it’s not just normal, but it’s harmful.”

Lawmakers in 2018 set the state’s minimum marriage age at 16 with the approval of one parent or guardian. The law came after The Star revealed that Missouri had among the nation’s loosest marriage law for 15-year-olds. It previously allowed children even younger to marry with a judge’s approval.

Missouri does, however, ban marriage between a minor and anyone 21 or older. The state’s statutory rape law also prohibits those 21 or older from sexual intercourse with anyone under 17.

But opponents of the current law say it still does not go far enough and have pushed for the bill from Rehder and Arthur.

Before the 2018 law went into effect, 88% of minors who were married in Missouri were age 16 or 17, Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit seeking to end child marriage nationwide, previously told reporters.

The law, Reiss said, has failed to protect 88% of the people it was intended to help.

Arthur said that lawmakers need to think of young girls who have been affected by child marriages in Missouri. But aside from educating her colleagues about the importance of the legislation, she said voters need to elect different people to the General Assembly.

“It is a common sense position that children should not get married,” she said. “It is an extreme view to think that children should be allowed to engage in that kind of contract.”

For Rehder, the opposition to her bill was “rather interesting.”

“This is about banning child marriage,” she said. “Marriage is a decision that should be made by adults. It’s as simple as that.”