TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In what has become one of the high-profile issues of this year’s legislative session, the House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would prevent most minors from getting married in Florida.
But the House would not go as far as the Senate, which has passed an outright ban on marriage licenses for people under age 18. The House and Senate have a little more than three weeks to work out the differences before the scheduled March 9 end of the session.
The House version would allow people who are age 16 or 17 to get married under certain circumstances that include pregnancy. The minors could only marry people who are no more than two years older. The couples also would have to verify pregnancies, and the minors would have to get written consent from their parents or guardians.
During a lengthy debate Wednesday, House members grappled with trying to prevent exploitation of young girls while also dealing with situations in which teens get pregnant. Bill co-sponsor Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, said the House version is a “narrowly crafted compromise.”
Legislation emerged in the House and Senate, at least in part, because of the story of 58-year-old Sherry Johnson, who said she was forced to marry her adult rapist at age 11 after giving birth to child. Johnson has lobbied for an outright ban on marriage licenses for people under 18.
Under current law, minors age 16 and 17 can get marriage licenses with parental consent, and judges have discretion to issue licenses to younger minors if they have children or if pregnancies are involved.
Nunez said she was “horrified” in listening to Johnson’s story and said current law “enables the worst of outcomes.” Backers of the House compromise said it would address such egregious situations.
“It absolutely ends the horrors of child marriage,” Nunez said.
The House voted 108-2 to approve the plan, with Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, and Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, opposed.
Gonzalez objected, in part, to what he described as the bill drawing an “artificial line.” He said some minors who are 16 or 17 and not pregnant could have valid reasons for getting married and that “this conversation belongs in the family.”
Other House members, however, expressed concerns that the House was not going far enough.
Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, said the bill was originally aimed at protecting girls who get raped and impregnated, and the House version doesn’t adequately address that. She said an outright ban on minors getting marriage licenses wouldn’t prevent teens from getting married, just delay it until they turn 18.