There is a bill in the Minnesota legislature to take away the right of 16- and 17-year-old children to apply for a marriage license.
“What?” you say. “Children can get married?”
Yes, Minnesota law has long permitted this under some circumstances. In 1905, a boy of 18 could marry a girl of 15. At that time, the age of majority was 21, so children of 18 and 15 could marry without getting parental approval.
In 1927, the Legislature raised the girl’s age to 16, or she could marry at 15 with consent of her parents or guardian and approval by a judge. This was changed again in 1949 to allow boys of 16 and girls of 15 to marry with parental consent and a judge’s approval.
In 1963, for some reason, the Legislature raised the age to 21 for men and 18 for women, or 18 and 16 with parental and judicial approval.
In 1973, the age of majority was lowered from 21 to 18, and the age to marry was set at 18 for both sexes, or 16 for girls with approval of parents and a judge.
In 1981, the male/female difference was eliminated, and both boys and girls could get married at age 16 if the parents and a judge approved. That’s still the law in Minnesota today.
But the Legislature is thinking about eliminating the exception for 16- and 17-year-olds. A bill, House File 745, was introduced by Rep. Kaohly Her, DFL, St. Paul, to remove that exception to the general age 18 rule on the theory that no one should be allowed to marry if they are under age 18, even with approval of the parents and a judge.
Representative Her, who is of Hmong ancestry, says that she has a personal connection to this issue. She faced the prospect of an arranged marriage as a teenager. A much older man who saw her only briefly at an event had called her father asking if he could marry her. Her father declined, insisting his daughter would not marry until she graduated from college. (She now has an MBA degree and is working on her doctorate.)
“Had my father not been my advocate, my life outcome would be very different,” Her said. She said graduating from high school and college would have surely been impossible and that her life would be very limited in several other important ways.
“I would not be here today, standing before you as a state legislator," she said.
An estimated 248,000 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010. Many of those may have involved girls who became pregnant and wanted to get married before the child was born, though no statistics are kept.
The House of Representatives unanimously passed Rep. Her’s bill last March, and it is now awaiting action in the Minnesota Senate. However, some Republican members of the Senate oppose the bill — one reportedly said that if a Hmong farmer in Minnesota wants to get a substantial bride price for his daughter, he (the senator) wouldn’t want to interfere.
That kind of comment undoubtedly led to the unanimous affirmative vote in the Minnesota House. There are two states, New Jersey and Delaware, that passed laws last year prohibiting marriage under 18 years, even with parental and judicial approval, and the idea is becoming a movement.
Supporters argue that having sex with children is statutory rape, so marriage must be for people age 18 and older — no exceptions.
However, the argument about statutory rape is incorrect. In Minnesota, the age of consent to have sexual relations is 16. That means it is not a crime to engage in consensual sex with a boy or girl who is 16 or 17 years old unless the older person is in a position of authority or has a significant relationship with the minor.
A person younger than 16 is not considered old enough to give consent, but at age 16 his or her consent is voluntary. So if children of 16 are old enough to have sex, why are they not old enough and mature enough to consent to marriage?
The Minnesota statute requires the judge to make “a careful inquiry into the facts and the surrounding circumstances” before approving an application for a marriage license by a 16 or 17 year old. Isn’t this a sufficient safeguard to protect the child who is being sold to an old man?
Juliet was only 13 years old when she married Romeo. But maybe Shakespeare gave her that age to demonstrate the dangers of marriage at too young of an age. How do you feel about it?
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jamesmanahan.com.