BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Louisianans younger than 16 will not be able to marry if Governor John Bel Edwards signs a bill lawmakers sent to his desk in the final minutes of this year’s legislative session. He has already indicated his approval of the concept, but did not commit to signing the bill because he had not yet read it.
Louisiana does not currently have a minimum age for marriage. Instead, a judge must sign off on weddings involving a child under 16, and both parents must approve a marriage involving a 16 or 17 year old. That system can allow an adult to impregnate a child and then marry her to avoid suspicion or criminal penalties.
“When the consummation of that marriage would result in a crime, had it not been for that marriage, we’re essentially allowing carnal knowledge of a juvenile to go unchecked,” Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR) Legal Director Morgan Lamandre said. “The hope is to protect children and not cover up crimes.”
Under the proposed law, 16 and 17 year old juveniles would have to get parental and judicial consent to marry, and the age gap between a minor and an adult could not be more than three years.
At least 63 children were married in 2015, according to Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) records. The youngest spouse that year was 14, and a 47 year old married a 16 year old.
“Is every minor mature enough to make the decision that they should be married?” Lamandre asked. “Kids deserve to be kids.”
The debate inside the legislature was intense. Some lawmakers argued that some 16 year olds are mature enough to marry, and that the bill will force pregnant mothers who are younger than 16 to become single parents, at least for a few years.
“The girl is already pregnant, so what should we tell her to do? Get an abortion? Or have the baby on her own?” Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, asked as she opposed the bill on the floor. “It’s sad that we’re even having this conversation, but if she’s 15, she can’t get married.”
The bill was heavily rewritten in each step of the legislative process before landing in a conference committee. Neither side of the debate was especially pleased with the final bill. Some lawmakers want a higher minimum age, while others don’t want a minimum at all.
“I think we need to look at what’s in the best interest of the child who will ultimately be born,” Lamandre said. “Just because you’re married does not mean that’s a suitable, stable, or healthy environment.”
The bill also requires a judge to interview each prospective spouse separately to look for red flags. The judge will also have to ask about housing plans and has the right to inquire about criminal history and education. The prospective spouses will also have to enroll in eight hours of marriage counseling.
The judiciary will compile an annual marriage report that includes data on child weddings by parish and submit it to the legislature each year.