The West Virginia legislature passed new restrictions on underage marriages after a total ban failed last week.
The state now prohibits anyone under the age of 16 from getting married regardless of parental consent. Additionally, any marriage that involves a 16- or 17-year-old cannot have an age gap greater than 4 years.
Under previous state law, 16- and 17-year-olds could get legally married if they had parental consent while anyone under the age of 15 could get married with a waiver from a judge.
State Delegate Kayla Young, a Democrat, sponsors the underage marriage ban – House Bill 3018. The bill was passed by the House on March 1 but failed to pass the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Young denounced the decision on Twitter and criticized the committee for not fully debating her legislation.
“No one admitted why they think children as young as infants should be legally allowed to be married off,” tweeted Young.
HB 3018 was subsequently amended to include the age-gap restriction and to lower the proposed minimum age for marriage from 18 to 16. The West Virginia Senate then passed the bill on March 10 following a 31-1 vote.
The single no vote came from a Democrat, state senator Mike Woelfel, who opposed the compromise reached through the amendments.
“Folks like to tell these stories from the 1950s and 60s where true love prevailed like Romeo and Juliet, well that ended in suicide,” Woelfel told WOWKTV. “The day has passed for children to get married. I mean, you can’t even vote under 18, why in the world would you be able to get married?”
Senator Mike Stuart, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, had originally opposed HB 3018 but voted in favor of the bill after the amendments were attached. Stuart said he supported policy change to protect children from exploitation but did not want to prevent marriage between teenagers who are in love.
“I think everyone here in the State Senate supports a floor for marriage but we also want to make sure that those 16-year-olds like my mom and dad that we’re not somehow standing in the way of those types of relationships,” said Stuart while speaking with WOWKTV. “We don’t want our children being the target of adults who intend to take advantage of those relationships. So, what we want to do is place a variation of age, we don’t want huge gaps.”
Young said HB3018’s page was a “huge step to protecting our youngest children.”
“The bill likely would have died without the amendment (ew),” she tweeted on March 10. “We will at least have a floor on the age of marriage in WV and stop the largest age gaps.”
The bill was passed by the state House and will now be sent to Governor Jim Justice.