A debate has emerged at the Capitol over the past few weeks. The question: should the government prohibit marriage when one or both seeking to marry are less than 18 years of age?

SB172 by Sen. Yvonne Colomb prohibits marriage for persons under 18 (this was later reduced by an amendment to 16 then raised again to 17). No doubt well-intentioned, the purported reason for this prohibition is that there are cases where minors (especially girls) have been trafficked or have been forced into marriage with much older men. Of course, there is no dispute that situations like this are horrific and the state should make every attempt to prevent and prosecute. But SB172 would prohibit ALL marriages involving minors with no consideration for the maturity level or a pregnancy which might be part of the equation.

Somewhere along the line, as the debate devolved, all marriages involving minors became something to be abhorred and prohibited. “Child marriage,” “sexual assault,” and “sex trafficking” were messaged to make unthinkable every proposed marriage between two young people.

Marriage was created by God and is the foundation of a healthy society. Marriage is designed to be the context in which human sexuality is expressed and in which children are nurtured. But like everything else in our fallen world, sin has marred sexual relationships and marriage as well. We live in a day where marriage is no longer a cherished covenant and we know that the marriage rate has fallen dramatically. In 2017, 52 percent of babies in Louisiana were born to unmarried mothers. So, at a time when many are abandoning marriage, why would we attempt to prevent marriage, when there could be valid reasons to consider?

Certainly, underage marriage is not wise in most cases. Current law in Louisiana allows marriage at any age but only with restrictions; for those under 18, there must be the consent of both parents and under 16 they need the consent of parents and a juvenile court judge. But it is a giant leap from the current law to a hard and fast cutoff of no marriages under a certain age of say 16, 17, or 18. Some argue that parents may be complicit in some sort of illicit forced marriage or that hard cases slip through the cracks even when the judicial system is involved. If this is the concern, then we can look at ways to address that and remedy.

Amendments to SB172 offered by Representative Beryl Amedee on the House Floor Sunday night brought sanity to the debate. Instead of an absolute prohibition against early marriage, why not offer an incremental approach? The amendments added to the bill give much more discretion to a judge in reviewing each case. They provide guidelines of things the judge would consider such as pregnancy, the ages and maturity of the parties, evidence of force or assault, and other issues. Any evidence of criminal activity such as sexual assault or domestic violence must be reported to law enforcement or child protective services. The amendments also beef up reporting and data collection so that we can get a better idea of exactly how prevalent early age marriage is and if there are clear cases of trafficking taking place.

On the House floor, Representative Nancy Landry went to the microphone in a reasoned defense of marriage. She pointed out the many benefits to both spouses and the children of the marriage relationship. Marriage, even when minors are involved, is not sex trafficking. Yes, there are bad situations, but the issue of whether or not a couple should marry should be left to the parents to whom God gave the authority and responsibility to care for their minor children (as does the Louisiana Children’s Code) and additionally as a safeguard to a juvenile judge who can objectively sort out the facts and can deny the right to marry when the proposed guidelines suggest that the marriage license should not be granted. If illegal activity is involved, this process will shed light on that as well.

Those voting for these amendments and standing up for marriage in the House of Representatives have been vilified. “Monsters” in support of child marriage, as one person called them on social media. Nope. They are champions for marriage. They simply want to be sure that the public policy of our state still promotes marriage and even allows underage marriage when there is a pregnancy involved.

Teens that are victims of abuse and trafficking need our help and every resource available. LFF has worked on these issues in meaningful ways and will continue to make it a priority to protect them. And teens that find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy need a legal mechanism under carefully tailored judicial review to have the chance to build a life for their child. Let’s continue the debate and seek ways to accomplish both.

UPDATE: Earlier today, the Senate rejected the House amendments to SB172 – sending it to conference committee.

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