TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers took one step closer to ending child marriages Wednesday when the Florida Senate unanimously approved a bill that would ban issuing marriage licenses to people under age 18.
Senators said the measure will prevent the abuse of children, and cited a case of a woman, Sherry Johnson, who said she was forced to marry at age 11 after being raped and impregnated by an adult.
Johnson has lobbied for the bill (SB 140), spearheaded by Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.
“Her parents did the unthinkable. They forced her to marry the man who impregnated her as a child,” Benacquisto said. “She is the voice for this bill.”
Johnson, a mother of nine, said she was driven to make changes in state law because of her passion for children.
“To not want them to have to experience the negative things, the negative life I had to experience. And it's not necessary,” Johnson said. “We should always look out for our children.”
Under current law, minors can marry under certain conditions, such as with parental consent or in cases of pregnancies. Benacquisto’s proposal would make Florida's marriage law the strictest in the country when it comes to age.
“What it does is closes a loophole so that children cannot be used and abused by folks who, under normal circumstances, would go to jail,” Benacquisto said.
Numerous senators praised Benacquisto’s proposed ban on issuing marriage licenses to minors.
“This bill will help many families, many children, who might be facing this in this state,” Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, said. “I believe that this will go a long ways and send a message to those who abuse these children.”
Right now, there are no exceptions in the bill for anyone under 18 to get married. But that could be changing.
The House version of the bill (HB 335), sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, and Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, is scheduled to be heard Thursday by the House Judiciary Committee.
The House committee is expected to add language allowing 17- and 18-year-olds to marry if pregnancy is involved.
Johnson said she worries that any changes to the legislation will only put more girls at risk of being sex slaves.