Maryland lawmakers are dragging their feet, turning their state into a destination for child brides
They came from all over the country to get married in the Free State:
Ohio (16 and 36)
West Virginia (16 and 30)
In the past five years, some have even come from Alaska (17 and 19) to marry under the archaic laws of Maryland. The wedding tourists arrived as the rest of the nation began to tighten laws and raise the legal age at which someone can say ‘yes’.
Poyer imagines his own children when they were so young and is frustrated that in most underage marriages statewide clerks like him rarely see the two people marry.
“We don’t even have to check IDs,” Poyer said. The law states that only one person must appear before the clerk to obtain the marriage license. Once the marriage takes place – it could be at the courthouse, on the beach, in church, in a zoo, anywhere – the marriage certificate is issued and it is valid in all 50 states.
Marriage tourism is not new here. Free-wheeling, no-wait state demands made it the capital of elopements a century ago, especially in Elkton, the small border town closest to Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. The Vegas of the East. Elkton was to marriage what Reno was to divorce.
Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant went there in ‘The Philadelphia Story’, a chess champion and princess did in 1938 and Willie Mays and Margherite Wendell Chapman had their speedy wedding in Elkton in 1956. They were all smiling in their pictures.
“Courage, this is going to be the best day of your life,” one of the clerks in the basement of the Elkton courthouse told a 16-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl from Delaware, named Skyler, when she started crying. her wedding in February to a man twice her age in 2009.
“Wipe their tears away,” Skyler recalls the clerk recalling. Still in her twenties and trying to live a new life, she testified before lawmakers in 2016 to stop others from going through what she endured.
In his frequent testimony before state legislators — this is the seventh year they’ve been involved — Poyer points out that there are virtually no safeguards in Maryland law to protect children who do not want to marry. “The wedding ceremony itself can be performed by virtually anyone. Anyone can be ordained to perform a wedding in Maryland, it takes about five minutes and costs $29.99.
Over the past decade the nation has come to realize that it is perfectly legal for a 15 year old to marry a 40 year old man in most of our states.
State records show that at least 300,000 minors were married in the United States between 2000 and 2018, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, an advocacy group that was formed to help immigrants who fled to the United States. United to escape a forced marriage in their country of origin.
Since 2018, six states have raised the minimum age of marriage to 18, with no exceptions.
Rightly so, they should. You have to be 18 to vote, join the military, buy spray paint, pornography, and cigarettes (in some states), open a credit card, or work full-time. You must also be 18 to file for divorce and register with a domestic violence shelter.
I have a 15 year old boy, he is still working putting the dirty clothes in the hamper. But in Maryland, he could be a husband.
A 16 or 17 year old can marry under one of two conditions: parental consent or pregnancy. 15-year-olds who are both pregnant and have their parents’ blessing (only requires one parent) can get married.
“Only four states – four states – have [the pregnancy exception]“said Casey Carter Swegman, director of public policy at the Tahirih Justice Center and a native of Maryland, appalled by the stance his home state has taken on this. “And Maryland is one of them.”
The Blue Crab State, which has voted blue in every presidential election since 1988, is keeping company with Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico on this.
But why is it so bad? Hasn’t our nation’s tradition been filled with high school sweethearts who get pregnant and do the honorable thing by going to the altar? Isn’t a “gun wedding” part of our cultural lexicon? We devoured TV shows about pregnant teenagers.
Married teenage mothers are twice as likely to live in poverty, 50% more likely to drop out of school, three times more likely to be victims of domestic violence. Nearly 80% of them divorce, said Maryland Senator Sarah K. Elfreth (D), lead sponsor of Senate Bill 29.
More dangerously, Swegman said, Maryland law can give pedophiles unfettered access to their victims. And these children are limited in their ability to get help because they don’t have the same legal rights as an adult. If the victim comes from a vulnerable family, the promise of a better life from a predatory adult may win them over.
Governor Larry Hogan (R) has been silent on the issue. He was the one who extended the summer school vacation past Labor Day to help the tourism industry. So I asked his office if he was concerned about the state becoming a destination for child marriages.
“If lawmakers are able to resolve their differences and get something on his desk, the governor will carefully consider the measure,” Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said.
Bills to change that have been slamming around Annapolis for the past seven years, tossed from both sides of the aisle.
On the one hand, there are traditionalists like State Senator Chris West (R) who told a hearing last month that the “sticky wicket” on ending child marriage for him is a hypothetical couple, “a 17-year-old junior in high school and her 18-year-old boyfriend become sexually involved and she becomes pregnant, according to this bill there could be no marriage. You could almost hear the sounds of a 50s ballad and see West clenching his pearls when he said the child would be delivered out of wedlock.
On the other side, lawmakers are standing firm for a clear line at 18, no exceptions, rejecting amendments that allow emancipated minors aged 16 or 17 to marry. Or Senator Jill Carter (D), who said this month she was “ridden by the hypocrisy” of a bill that won’t let 17-year-olds marry while the system of criminal justice can try a 17 year old as an adult for certain crimes.
When introduced, Maryland was at the forefront of the revolution. It has since been left in the dust by Georgia, Utah, Florida and more than two dozen other states that have passed reform.
But on Valentine’s Day this week, the state senate reached a compromise and passed SR29, raising the age to 17 as long as the minor has parental approval or is pregnant. The compromise “represents the best balance we can find,” Elfreth said.
Of the. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D) has introduced the bill year after year because, among other reasons, she is tired of hearing the stories of “girls marrying men who are 10, 15, 20 years their senior.”
The House is expected to vote on the bill this week. And Poyer remains hopeful. 18 would be better, he said, but he will be relieved not to have to worry about marrying 15 and 16 year olds.
These are not love stories. And it’s time for Maryland to grow.