That time Chris Christie vetoed a ban on child brides

After much hemming and hawing, the state legislature in New Jersey manage to pass a bill forbidding marriage of children under the age of 18 and send it to Chris Christie’s desk. And now he’s vetoed it. But it wasn’t a complete closing of the door because the provisional veto sent it back to the legislature with suggested changes which would provide for some exceptions. (Reuters)

The governor of New Jersey declined to sign a measure into law on Thursday that would have made the U.S. state the first to ban child marriage without exception.

Republican Chris Christie, a supporter of President Donald Trump, said such a ban would conflict with religious customs.

Underage marriage is widespread in the United States, where about 170,000 children were wed between 2000 and 2010 in 38 of the 50 states where data was available, according to activists.

Although age 18 is the minimum for marriage in most of the nation, every state has legal loopholes allowing children to wed.

The whole subject of child brides gets under my skin because it’s a system which is just so open to abuse. (And we’re talking about literal, physical and sexual abuse of underage girls in too many cases.) But at the same time, I’m uncomfortable with a blanket ban such as the one New Jersey originally passed. Every state has the right to determine their own age of majority and consent, but setting the marriage bar at 18 with no exceptions seems a bit much. With too many decades under my belt at this point I can absolutely appreciate the wisdom of advising high school graduates to tread carefully before leaping into marriage so early in life, but having the government forbid it takes a complicated and intensely personal decision and seeks to cram it into a one size fits all solution.

We allow 17 year olds to enlist in the military with parental consent and sixteen year olds can get a license to drive in some states. Marriage is obviously a more solemn commitment than being able to drive a car, but all of these issues speak to maturity and self determination. And what of the young couple who unwisely wind up with a pregnancy to deal with when the girl is only sixteen or seventeen? Granted, an unintended pregnancy is far from the ideal launching point for a marriage, but it may be the best option if the family isn’t in favor of adoption or having the grandparents raise the child (as still happens in some families).

Christie’s solution is to allow a judge to make exceptions for sixteen or seventeen year olds. Again, I’m left with a queasy feeling about this but I’m unsure of what an ideal situation would look like. On the one hand, a judge may be in a better position to investigate and make sure there’s no sort of abuse or pedophilia going on which speaks in favor of the plan. But isn’t the family of each child generally in a better position to offer the blessings for the marriage to go forward?

Like most things in politics, this looks like a compromise that they may all have to live with and I suppose it’s better than nothing. Christie described the blanket ban with no exceptions as something that would, “violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions,” but I’m not sure that’s the best approach to take. It’s not always a matter of religion and some “cultures” can get into seriously sketchy territory. Perhaps it would be best to simply say that we don’t want to see 14 year old girls getting married in the United States in the 21st century, but we’re willing to make exceptions after they are a couple of years older.