Gov. John Kasich on Monday night signed into law a measure that protects Ohio children against underage marriage.
The new law comes in the wake of a Dayton Daily News investigation that found 4,443 girls age 17 or younger were married in Ohio between 2000 and 2015, including 59 who were 15 and younger. State records show three girls age 14 were married, including one pregnant bride who married a 48-year-old man.
Current Ohio law requires brides to be at least 16 and grooms to be at least 18, but exceptions are made for younger, pregnant teens if they have parental consent and juvenile court approval. That effectively means there is no legal minimum age for marriage in Ohio.
The new measure boosts the minimum marriage age to 18 for both parties but allows for 17-year-olds to marry if they have juvenile court consent, go through a 14-day waiting period and the age differential between the two isn’t more than four years.
Judges praise changes
Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Capizzi said the new law will help move Ohio out of the last century.
“The previous law led to greater risk of human trafficking, emotional trauma, and increased risk of abuse of young women. The new law codifies young men and woman as equals and sets the legal age of marriage at 18. It further does allow for certain exceptions but only for youth who are at least 17 with court oversight,” Capizzi said. “This law will go a long way to better protecting young women from the emotional and physical abuses that were allowed to occur under the old law.”
What is happening in other states?
Ohio joins six other states that set 17 as the minimum age for marriage under certain conditions, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, a non-profit focused on ending child marriage. Two states — Delaware and New Jersey — require that both parties be at least 18.
Advocates for the stricter law say under age marriage sets up girls for failure and exploitation. But it’s not just girls who are marrying before age 18: 301 boys age 17 or younger were married during the time frame studied by the newspaper, including 25 to women who were age 21 or older.
Newspaper investigation lead lawmaker to take action
The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Laura Lanese, R-Grove City, and John Rogers, D-Mentor-on-the-Lake.
“Earlier this year I learned of an investigation carried out by the Dayton Daily News which brought to light a high number of underage marriages in Ohio and the impact it has for juveniles as young as 14 years old,” Rogers said in a written statement. “In a specific case, a 48-year old impregnated a 14-year-old and then married her, exempting him from prosecution for statutory rape.”
“This bill marks a major step forward for Ohio in strengthening its laws to better protect girls from abuse and exploitation in the guise of marriage,” said Jeanne Smoot of the Tahirih Justice Center.
Same-sex marriage advocates upset
While advocates for ending child marriage cheered, advocates for LGBTQ rights were disappointed that Ohio lawmakers failed to remove the old language in state law that prohibits same sex marriage.
“They had an opportunity to do it and they didn’t,” said Cincinnati attorney Josh Langdon, who focuses on family and LGBTQ rights law. Furthermore, the new law re-states that marriage is between males and females, which Langdon says sends a mixed message to local trial court judges that adjudicate questions of family law.
“Basically, this reads like a big ‘you can’t get married if you’re gay’ law,” Langdon said.
Former state lawmaker Jeff Rezabek, who worked on the child marriage bill, has said he wanted to steer clear of efforts to remove the same-sex ban language, saying legislation solely focused on underage marriage had a better chance of passing.
In 2004, Ohio lawmakers approved a law prohibiting same sex marriage and later that year voters passed a constitutional amendment specifying that marriage is limited to between one man and one woman.
In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell versus Hodges — a case originating from Ohio — that states permit same-sex marriages and recognize those performed in other states.