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Legislature Brewer revives efforts to ban child marriage in Maine

A Brewer lawmaker is trying again to end child marriage in Maine.

State law allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent, similar to state laws in about half of the country. But a bill proposed by Congressman Kevin O’Connell, a Democrat, would ban anyone under 18 from getting married, whether their parents approve or not.

The bill is part of a larger effort to eliminate child marriage in the United States and elsewhere, to prevent the exploitation of children, especially girls. A small but growing number of states have eliminated the right of minors to marry under any circumstances.

O’Connell proposed a similar bill in the last session that passed the House but died in the Senate. At the time, some opponents said they preferred a different version of the bill that would have allowed 17-year-olds to marry, an age consistent with eligibility for military service.

That shift doesn’t sit well with O’Connell, who said he’s served 24 years in the military and often hears of 18-year-old soldiers marrying their 17-year-old girlfriends before deploying.

“I’ve seen those (weddings) and I don’t remember any of them actually working,” O’Connell said during an interview last week. “You don’t have the life experiences under your belt to make that decision.”

Almost all states require both partners to be 18 years of age to obtain a marriage license without needing parental permission.

About half of US states, including Maine, allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent. Nine states, including Florida, set a minimum age of 17. The minimum age in Kansas and Hawaii is 15, while nine states, including California, Mississippi and West Virginia, have no minimum age written into state laws, according to Unchained At Finally, a nonprofit led by survivors which seeks to end forced child marriages in the United States

Seven states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, have set the minimum age for marriage at 18, the group said.

Approximately 10,000 weddings take place in Maine each year, and according to state data, fewer than 10 typically involve at least one partner who is under the age of 18.

Supporters of the effort to ban child marriage argue that parental consent provisions for children under 18 can lead to parental coercion, especially in cases where a girl becomes pregnant. In some states, though not Maine, pregnancy is cited as a reason girls can get court permission to marry before they turn 18.

The vast majority of child marriages in Maine and the United States involve a girl marrying a grown man. There have been 46 marriages in Maine in the past six years involving someone under the age of 18. Almost all of those marriages – 43 – involved a girl. Five of the marriages were to a boy, including two marriages to a girl.

Unchained At Last claims that 70% to 80% of child marriages end in divorce, leaving young women with few options. Minors are immediately emancipated upon marriage and can become homeless if they leave a spouse, they said. Their future is dimmer because they often do not complete their education.

“(Maine’s bill) just closes the dangerous loophole and keeps the marriageable age at 18,” Unchained At Last’s Michele Hanash said in support of the bill in the latest session. “It harms no one, costs nothing and ends a human rights violation.”

Dawn Tyree, of Manning, Oregon, testified before the Maine Legislature last year about her experiences as a child bride.

Tyree said her parents forced her to marry their 32-year-old nanny when she was 13 after she became pregnant as a result of sexual abuse. At age 16, she was trying to escape marriage. She had two small children and no one to turn to. She was not allowed in shelters and was too young to have a hotel room.

“My parents had disowned me for leaving the marriage,” she said. “My husband had reported me as a fugitive and law enforcement threatened to return me to my rapist.”


Tyree said he spent decades in poverty as a result.

“My biggest fear was that my children would be taken away because of the way we lived,” she said. “The ripple effect of my child marriage was devastating.”

O’Connell’s bill in the last session was also supported by the justices of the peace associations, which represent notaries and justices of the peace nationwide, including Maine.

Director Loretta Jay said 95% of its members voted to join the National Coalition to End Child Marriages in 2018 and would prefer not to participate in child marriages but are legally required to do so.

“The passage of this bill will also relieve state notaries of conflicting legal and ethical obligations,” Jay wrote. “Child marriages devastate the lives of girls. It destroys their health, education and economic opportunities and increases their risk of experiencing violence.”

Until 2020, Maine allowed children under 16 to marry if they had parental consent and a judge’s approval. That year the legislature passed a bill prohibiting marriage under the age of 16, and it became law without the signature of Governor Janet Mills.

The governor’s office did not respond last week to questions about why Mills didn’t sign into the 2020 bill or where he stands on O’Connell’s bill.

Senate Speaker Troy Jackson, Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross and MP Michael Lemelin, R-Chelsea, are supporting O’Connell’s bill in this session. Jackson voted against the bill last year and did not respond to questions about his decision to co-sponsor the bill this year.

A public hearing on O’Connell’s bill has not yet been scheduled.

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