New Jersey is one vote and one signature away from banning child marriage.

There were close to 200 marriages a year, on average, in the state involving someone under age 18 between 1995 and 2012 – typically a girl marrying an adult man.

“This is a historic moment in the history of New Jersey. We’re about to end child marriage, which is, according to the U.S. State Department, a human rights abuse,” said Fraidy Reiss, who survived a forced marriage at age 19 and has since founded Unchained At Last to advocate for states to end child marriage.

Delaware just became the first state to ban child marriage, in a law enacted May 9.

“It will go a long way toward preventing young people from being forced into arranged marriages against their will,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union.

Currently, state law allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent and people younger than 16 years old to marry with both parental consent and judicial approval.

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Between 1995 and 2012, there were 3,500 underage marriages, including 163 for young people between the ages of 13 and 15, according to data compiled by Unchained At Last.

“And that is too young. These are children that are forced to make very adult decisions,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer. “And a lot of people would even say 18 or 21 years old are too young to get married, especially these days. We want them to concentrate on school, concentrate on work and concentrate on their future.”

Deb Huber, president of the National Organization for Women of New Jersey, said marriage historically has been a financial transaction in which ownership of a woman was transferred from a parent to a husband – “and unfortunately for some young women, that is still the case.”

“As a teenager, she can’t vote, she can’t drink, she can’t smoke, but she can make a lifetime commitment?” Huber said. “This makes no sense.”

Assemblyman Arthur Barclay, D-Camden, called child marriage “nasty” and said he thought it was already illegal.

“At the end of the day, man, you know, it’s morals. It’s where are parents at? It’s sick,” said Barclay.

The bill, S427/A865, was passed 30-5 by the Senate last month, with Republican state Sens. Anthony Bucco, Gerald Cardinale, Michael Doherty, Steve Oroho and Sam Thompson opposed.

Last session, the bill was passed 26-5 in the Senate and 64-0 with seven votes to abstain in the Assembly, but was conditionally vetoed last year by then-Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie, in his veto, rewrote the bill to ban marriage for people under age 16 and require judicial approval for 16- and 17-year-olds, saying that “an exclusion without exceptions would violate and cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions.”

His suggestions were never taken up by the Legislature.

Marie Tasy, the executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, pressed lawmakers to amend the bill to the approach Christie advocated, but the changes weren’t made.

“She’s able to make reproductive health decisions on her own, but she can’t choose to marry the father of her child if she’s pregnant and she wants to?” Tasy said.

“This bill takes a one-size-fits-all approach, which is never good public policy,” Tasy said. “We have to always acknowledge that there are exceptions and not all girls are being forced by their parents or that they will end up in divorce or will end up with catastrophic life-long consequences on their lives.”

Reiss said a judicial review for 16- and 17-year-olds would undercut the proposal, since that’s the age of most who get married while underage.

“The reason we’re pushing hard to set the marriage age at 18 has nothing to do with maturity. It has to do with legal capacity,” Reiss said.

Before 18, one cannot easily enter into contracts because they’re voidable, cannot leave home without being labeled a runaway, can’t file for divorce and can’t enter a domestic violence shelter, Reiss said.

“This is a human rights abuse that we need to eliminate. Not shift, not change, not reduce. Eliminate,” she said.

The bill was advanced by the Assembly Judiciary Committee to the full Assembly, which has its next voting session May 24. It’s not yet known if the bill will be posted for a vote that day.

If passed, and Gov. Phil Murphy signs it, it would then take effect immediately.


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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